Interlude 21

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How did the others do it?  They entered into a room and people respected them.

Sabah walked through her territory, a black, bipedal unicorn just behind her.  She had muscle, but the stares she got were hard ones, challenging.

Was it that she’d inherited territory that Bitch had controlled, once?  Territory where people had been afraid to go outside for fear of being attacked by dogs?  She’d tried to make it clear she wasn’t that kind of leader, had tried to emulate Skitter, even, but it hadn’t worked.  Gifts she’d brought in were rejected outright, or taken wordlessly, as if people thought she owed them something for being in charge.  She’d saved people from the Teeth… saved them from extortion, threats.

Not even a thank-you.

She couldn’t shake the suspicion that, well, she hadn’t been here when the disasters hit Brockton Bay.  She hadn’t been a line of defense between these people and the Slaughterhouse Nine, the Merchants, the Chosen, or the Pure.

She’d been one of those people, instead.  She’d escaped being the victim, but… she’d lost so many people she cared about.

It wasn’t the first time she’d done this.  Gravitating towards one idea, feeling like she’d finally found the one thing she had to do.  It was never easy.  Always an uphill climb.

High school had been hard because she’d immigrated from Basra with her family.  She’d had an incomplete understanding of English, had been forced to learn the language as she learned the subject matter.  Her parents had been too occupied with their own issues and their own adjustment to help her out, so she’d done it alone.

Sabah was still kind of proud that she’d managed it, even if it wasn’t something that anyone else had ever recognized.  A private, personal victory.

She’d attended university, and had gravitated towards the grittier subjects.  She’d taken math courses, focusing on engineering after her first year, because they had been the subjects she’d found easiest in her transition to an English high school.  She’d been okay with it, not happy but not miserable, but still, she hadn’t had a person to confide in.  She’d stuck it out on her own, quietly uncomfortable with where she was in every sense of the word, unwilling to burden her family with her relatively minor issues.

Being a girl in a male-dominated field, she’d drawn attention from one student.  A boy.  He’d been nice, but he’d also been under the impression that being nice demanded reciprocation, as though every action deserved an equal and appropriate reaction from her.

He was always there.  They had the same classes, because they were in the same program, barely twenty-five of them in all, and Brockton Bay’s college wasn’t that big.  He was always interested in talking to her, and her more demure rejections had had no effect.

She tried a clear ‘no’, and it didn’t work.  He’d gone away for a few days, then came back, making another casual hint about them maybe going out.

She tried a harsh no, laced with all the anger and frustration she’d been feeling, and she got labeled a ‘bitch’.  The other students, friends or acquaintances of her would-be-paramour, wound up hearing and turned on her.  Her schoolwork started to suffer, because she didn’t have the study groups, nobody willing to work with her on projects and presentations.

So, after six weeks of that, she’d caved.  She told him she’d had a bad day, apologized for her attitude.  She’d hated herself for doing it.

It only served to put her right back where she’d been before, dreading going to class and dealing with him.  Always with that vague fear that he’d escalate, that he’d start sending her emails or phoning her.

And because of the way she’d done it, she’d burned a bridge.  She couldn’t defuse the relationship with a statement to the effect of, ‘I don’t like boys.’  He would have seen it as another manipulation, and she couldn’t have managed if she were cut off again.

Her father’s terminal heart attack had been another straw on the camel’s back.  Alone, it was nothing, but in combination with everything else… Sabah had triggered on what was only one in a long string of nights spent alone, stewing in frustration, fear and anger in her dorm room.  She’d glimpsed something bigger, something that was beyond her recall now, and she’d gained her powers.

That had been the push she’d needed to walk away from the boy and the engineering program.  She’d found a new goal.  Success in fashion design.  As far away from engineering as she could get.  Her mom had been disappointed, but she’d felt like she maybe had a direction.  She’d made friends.  Even moved out of a coveted single-bed dorm room to a double to socialize more.

It hadn’t lasted long, that motivation.  Even before Leviathan came and dashed the college to pieces, she’d had doubts about whether it was what she was meant to do.

Even before the Slaughterhouse Nine had killed her mom, her aunt, her cousin, and her roommate, she’d been feeling hopeless, desperate.

She’d taken Skitter’s offer, hoping that maybe, this time, it would be different.  That maybe, if it was something she needed to do, rather than something she wanted, she’d find that direction, find that focus.

She hadn’t.  From beginning to end, it had felt as hollow as each of the earlier ventures.

Sabah made her way to her headquarters, her atelier, and she couldn’t help but notice the way people stared, or the way they didn’t show her the respect that Skitter seemed to naturally accept and respond to.

She hadn’t been here when it counted.  Now they were moving on, and she was rudderless once again.

Always an uphill climb.

She’d just reached her atelier when her phone rang.  A text.

Flechette:
Skitter showed up at PRT office and turned self in.  They taking her to cell right now.

She had to reread it to make sure she wasn’t getting the wrong impression.  Skitter… The ramifications of this… The… What?

Before she could even wrap her head around the subject, there was another text.

Flechette:
You know anything about this?

The heroes seemed as confused about this as Sabah was.

Parian:
Nothing.

She found Tattletale on the contact list, tried calling.

A busy signal.

A text instead?

Parian:Tt skitter just surrendered to heroes

The reply was almost immediate:

Tt:I know. come 2 meet place from other nite asap.  First floor.

No answers, no information, only an order to meet up.

The unicorn wouldn’t do, put together like it was.  It had to be deconstructed, repurposed.

Her power gave her fine control with lightweight materials.  That wasn’t a problem.  Threads unwound, seams coming undone.

But her control of larger things was an entirely different beast.  Her telekinesis fell apart when she tried to move anything heavier than a half-pound or so, her dexterity and speed in moving those objects that much slower.  Worse, her telekinesis exploded, and not even in a constructive manner.  It got more and more unstable as she tried to move larger things, until it simply… expanded, dissipated over an area in an attempt to extend control to a multitude of tiny, lightweight objects.

She began reconstructing the unicorn into a quadruped.

She’d experimented, after getting her power.  Found that she could contain the telekinesis and keep it from dissipating.  It hadn’t been constructive until she started working with more flexible materials.  Porous materials worked best, because her telekinesis could soak into them, through them, and allow her to move the fabric rather than just the material within.  The gaps in the fabric allowed her to feed power into the ‘shell’ without it building to critical mass and collapsing.  Cloth worked best.  Torn or ripped seams could be mended, any other damage proved easily fixable, compared to the issues sturdier material posed.  It was plentiful, cheap, and effective.  Cloth was her ideal material.

And once the construction was formed, a shell that trapped the telekinetic energy within until it was heavy, she could move it as a collective whole.

The unicorn, at her bidding, bent down to allow her to climb onto its back.  Once she was securely in place, belted onto the cloth animal for security, it took off.

There was no instinct here.  It was all forced, all clumsily hobbled together with a power that probably wasn’t intended for this use.  If powers even had an intent backing them up.

As such, it took time to find the unicorn’s stride.  She had to watch where it put its ‘hooves’, fashioned of work gloves and the scraps of rubber boots.  She could feel with her power, where it was, but she couldn’t see through its eyes, and any coordination it possessed was limited to what she could give it from her current position.

She wasn’t good at this.  Navigating the streets, where they were congested with cars, or making her way through the areas where there was construction, littered with obstacles and pitfalls.  At being a cape, at being an important cape.

The Forsberg Gallery appeared, and she ducked off to one side to deconstruct the unicorn.

The material formed two smaller creations, for a smaller profile, and for some muscle to move a barricade meant to keep bystanders out of the construction area around the gallery.

Tattletale, Regent and Imp were already there when she arrived, along with two of Tattletale’s soldiers and one of Regent’s underlings.  A television was hooked up, standing in the center of the room.

“…not yet confirmed, but sources suggest that the supervillain is within a containment cell, as authorities convene to discuss…

Parian glanced at Tattletale, who was sitting on the stairs, head hanging.  She was wearing full-coverage sunglasses over her mask.  Solemn, staring at the ground, or just resting, with her eyes closed.

“Any details?” Parian asked.

“No,” Regent said.  “Nothing but the obvious.”

Grue entered, and he was a storm of darkness, to the point that his body wasn’t even visible.

“Hey, big brother,” Imp said.  There was a notable, very deliberate pause.  “How’re you doing?”

“I should have known.  Should have put it together,” he growled the words in that voice of his that made Parian’s hair stand on end.  He turned to Tattletale, “Did you know about this?”

“Power’s out of commission,” she said.  “Still have a headache.  Keep voices down, please.”

He didn’t reply, turning his attention to the TV.

“I can’t help but note you didn’t answer the question,” Regent told Tattletale.  “Did you know?”

Grue turned back to look at her.

“Had an idea.”

“Yes, then.”

“Yes.”

Why?”  Grue asked.  “Why keep it a secret?  Why is she doing this?”

“I kept it a secret because she asked me to and she’s doing this because she thinks it’s going to fix more things than it breaks,” Tattletale said.  She shifted position with care, as though every movement was painful.  Even after she stopped, Parian could see her clenching her jaw, as if staving off waves of pain.

“Remains to be seen,” Grue said.  “Why didn’t she discuss this with us?”

It was Regent who replied, “She thought we’d convince her it was a bad idea.”

“That’s not a convincing reason,” Grue answered.

This is the team, Parian thought.  Skitter was always at the core of it, a group forged by innumerable challenges, each trusting the others to have their backs as they risked life and limb.  And she just betrayed that trust.

“There’s two major issues we have to deal with,” Tattletale said.  “Accord is going to be one.  The other is-

Bitch.

The girl entered the room, two large dogs flanking her, the wolf cub trailing behind, unmodified by her powers.  The young American bulldog, still not fully grown, an older pitbull that bore the scars of old dogfights.  The wolf cub was comparatively small.  Adorable.  Adorable and capable of turning into a murder machine the size of a pony.

Bitch was imposing in an entirely different way than Grue was.  Grue was intimidating, but he was fair.  Rational.  Bitch wasn’t either of those things.  Her blond hair was shaggy, having grown in, combed with little more than fingers, if appearance was any indication. The glimpses of her face that showed in the midst of the hair were a wary glower.

The girl had her jacket slung over one shoulder, otherwise wearing a simple white sleeveless undershirt with no bra.  She was muscular, but she had to be to control the dogs when they were growing, to exert enough strength to get them to turn their heads or change direction.  Other parts of her bore similar signs of her day-to-day activities.  Her knuckles were scraped and raw, and she had a scratch on one cheekbone, taped shut.  The chain that attached to the pitbull’s collar was wound around one arm.  She was beaded with sweat, likely due to the exertion of the ride coupled with the heavier pants and boots she wore.

I hate being short, Parian thought.  To look at them, few people would have guessed there was a four-year difference in ages.  Or they would have guessed the difference in ages went the other way.

Primal, unpredictable, dangerous.  Bitch was imposing for those reasons, and because she was emotional.  She could and would lash out with physical violence if provoked.  Even if she imagined that someone was provoking her.  If she was really provoked, she wouldn’t move a muscle, which was worse.  She’d whistle and set her dogs on anyone that crossed her.

Parian felt her heart rate pick up as Bitch approached, felt that sense of danger peak as they briefly made eye contact, before the girl moved on.

As unfriendly as the girl was, Bentley was friendly, the young bulldog nudging Parian’s hand for a scratch before hurrying to catch up to his master.

Regent turned off the TV.  Bitch stood there, turning to look at each of her teammates in turn.

“What?”

“Christ,” Grue muttered.  “Tattletale.  You didn’t tell her?”

“Tell me what?” Bitch asked.  She glanced around.  “Where’s Skitter?”

Nobody volunteered an answer.

“Is she hurt?” Bitch asked.  She didn’t even sound concerned.  When nobody spoke up, she expanded her question.  “Is she dead?”

“Fuck it,” Regent said, “I’ll say it.  Skitter’s at the PRT headquarters.”

“So?  We break her out.”

“She went there on purpose,” Regent said, almost offhandedly.  Carelessly.

Parian couldn’t help but notice the way Bitch clenched her hands, one gripping the metal chain until her knuckles went white.

“Regent,” Grue said.

“What?  You don’t want to deliver the news, you don’t get a say in how it’s presented,” Regent retorted.

Bentley and the wolf cub both planted their feet further apart, while the pitbull was looking around, all of a sudden.

There.  Bentley’s shoulders were bulging slightly.  Bitch was using her powers.

So?” Bitch asked.

“So… that’s it.  That’s why we’re here,” Regent said.  “We’re here to talk about this, to plan.”

“She’ll be back,” Bitch said.

Will she?  Parian couldn’t help but wonder.

“I’m not so sure,” Grue said, echoing Parian’s thoughts.

“She makes plans,” Bitch said.  “She’s smart like that.  I’m not.  I don’t try to understand what she’s doing.”

“She paid me a visit,” Grue said.  “I didn’t realize it until I got the call from Tattletale.  She was saying goodbye.  Not out loud, but… checking I was okay, making sure I’d be able to manage… after she was gone.”

Bentley was still growing.  His flesh split at the shoulder, and he brought one back leg up, kicking at the air as if he had an itch he wanted to reach but couldn’t.

The pitbull and wolf puppy were growing too.  The pitbull looked a lot less comfortable with the process than the other animals, more alarmed.  Bitch tugged the chain absently to keep him in line.

“She visited us too,” Regent said.  “Imp and me.”

“Me too,” Tattletale spoke from her perch on the stairs, quiet.

Not me, Parian thought.  Unless I count that meeting with Miss Militia and Lily.

That served the same purposes, didn’t it?  Getting things settled?  Making sure things would be okay in the future.  Ensuring the heroes could help out with my territory?

Parian felt a sinking feeling in her gut.  Skitter hadn’t been leaving for the short-term.

And that sinking feeling couldn’t even compare to what the others were feeling, here.

Tattletale, nearly incapacitated.  Grue, with his darkness a virtual storm around him.  Regent and Imp, standing back, together.  And Bitch.  Stock still, radiating something more than tension.  Restrained aggression, even.

“Doesn’t mean anything,” Bitch said.

“It’s telling,” Grue said.  “She was saying goodbye.”

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Bitch said, and her voice was harder.  “It’s a plan.”

Why am I even here?  The thought struck Parian, out of place, out of time, a non-sequitur, yet somehow profound.  As if this point, in the middle of the discussion, was when she realized how out of place she was in the dynamic.

“Of course it’s a plan,” Regent was saying.  “It might not be a good plan-”

Bitch cut him off.  “She goes there, she defeats them, and then she comes back.”

“Um,” Imp said.  “Why wouldn’t she tell us?”

“She’ll have a reason,” Bitch said.

Loyalty, Parian thought.  Misguided loyalty, blinding Bitch to the truth, but loyalty nonetheless.

“Look, it’s not important,” Tattletale said.

“It’s important,” Bitch growled.  “You’re supposed to be her friends, and you’re talking about her like she’s gone.”

The pitbull seemed to take her cue, and began growling steadily.  He was still growing, his body straining against the chain harness he wore.

“She’s not gone for sure,” Tattletale said.  “We don’t know how this is going to play out, not exactly.”

Bitch didn’t seem the least bit satisfied with that, but the pitbull stopped growling.  Had she stopped using her power?

“What do we know?” Regent asked.

“That she wanted to keep us in the dark,” Tattletale said.  “That she wanted to go…”

“And she planned to be gone long time,” Grue said.  “She was asking me about leadership, about whether I was ready to take the reins.  I said no, but she did it anyways.”

“She thought this was important,” Tattletale said.  “Enough to put you out of your depth, as much as you don’t want it, as much as she didn’t want it for you.”

I don’t even figure into this, Parian thought.  I’m not even sure I’m an official member of the group.

“So I’m leader in the interim,” Grue said.  There was a note of something in his voice, behind that haunting echo that his power laced it with.  Not as severe as despair, bigger than unhappiness.  Defeat?

“…Unless there’s any objections,” he said.

Hopeful?

Nobody voiced any.

“Then we run damage control,” Grue said.  “Her territory?”

“We can fold it into adjacent territories,” Tattletale said.  “Parian, Grue, me.  Maybe the others take over some of our territories to give us an easier job of it.  She made other arrangements, with her residents.  I can contact them so we can discuss it, put it all into action.”

“Her people aren’t a big priority,” Grue said.  “If they’re not going to riot, let’s put them on the backburner.  I’m more worried about anything that could go up in flames in the next hour.”

“Literally,” Regent said.

“…Possibly literally,” Grue said.  “Accord?”

“I called him just after Regent and Imp showed,” Tattletale said.  “He’ll be here at nine thirty, on the dot.  Would have mentioned sooner, but we got caught up in talking.”

Grue nodded, glancing back towards the TV.  Parian did the same.  A number blinked on the box beneath the screen: nine twenty-six.  “That doesn’t give us much time to organize.”

“The longer we wait, the more upset he’ll be,” Tattletale said.  “And he’s a planner.  If we give him time, he’ll work out some scheme to retaliate against us.  We’re stronger against him if he’s on his toes.”

“Granted,” Grue said.  He sighed, “God, I’m not up to this.  Damn her to hell.”

There was no reply from the group.

How many members of this group were voicing silent agreement?  Parian shifted her weight nervously.  How many people here had taken a life?  All of them?  Most?

Parian couldn’t help but feel out of her depth.  The terminology had never felt so apt, feeling like she was in the water, at that one point where she realized she couldn’t reach safety, the water around her face…

She felt like that now, here.

Taylor had been undercover once, hadn’t she?  She’d immersed herself in this.  It was impossible to imagine.

“Accord,” Tattletale said.

Parian thought at first that Tattletale was returning the group to the topic of conversation, but Tattletale was taking off her glasses, grimacing.

“Undersiders,” Accord said.

“You’re early,” Tattletale said.

“Rest assured, I’m on time.”

“The clock-”

“Is slow,” Accord said.  “I arrived when I said I did, and I’ll ask you once to please stop suggesting otherwise.”

If Bitch was an ‘I’ll punch your face in for no reason’ kind of intimidating, and Grue was an ‘I’ll explain carefully just why I’m about to punch your face in’ intimidating, Accord was something else entirely.

It was really easy to imagine him nonchalantly standing above her while she stood in a pit he’d had dug out, a cement truck slowly filling in the space around her.  Or very politely eating someone’s severed leg with a knife and fork held in the proper manner.

He was the kind of scary guy they made movies about, only he was real.

And that made her think about the Slaughterhouse Nine.

She hated him.  She understood everything about why the Undersiders were working with him, understood that they’d be at the mercy of others like the Slaughterhouse Nine if they didn’t have muscle like his on their side, but she hated him.

He was her height, dressed in a white business suit and tie, his intricate wood-and-silver mask moving to replicate the expressions beneath.

He was joined by his Ambassadors.  Each wore a finished mask, a suit for the men and a dress for the ladies: Citrine in yellow, with gemstones; Othello in alabaster white and jet black, all stark contrasts; Ligeia in a deep blue-green that contrasted her dark skin, with a conch-shell mask that swept back over the corner of her forehead, with an ‘up’ hairstyle to match; Jacklight, with a deep royal purple dress shirt and pocket square, his mask a grinning visage that would be fitting for a child’s jack-in-the-box; and Lizardtail, bigger than the others, with a green dress shirt and pocket square, an ornate mask that looked more like a Celtic knot than anything lizardlike.  Maybe the segments or spiral of it were supposed to represent a cut tail?

He’d arrived with firepower, in short.  Parian didn’t consider herself very combat-savvy, but she was aware of that much.

“I… rather dislike surprises,” Accord said.

“You and me both, pal,” Tattletale replied.

It wasn’t… it didn’t seem like a smart way to talk to the perfectionist supervillain.  Accord was dangerous, so why was Tattletale provoking him?

It seemed to take Accord a second to compose himself and get his thoughts in order.  “It would be polite to stand, when a guest arrives.”

“Feeling a bit under the weather,” Tattletale said.  “Forgive my bad manners.  I take it you caught the essentials on TV?”

“On the radio, while we drove,” Accord said.  “Did you know of this scheme?”

“Of course,” Tattletale said.  “Do you think we’re crazy?  Everything’s golden.”

“Golden,” Accord said.

“Copacetic, peachy keen.”

“I wasn’t informed of any plans.”

“You don’t have to be,” Tattletale said.

“We’re allies.”

“You’re subordinate to us,” Tattletale said.  “If you have an issue with that, I urge you to submit a written complaint and formally declare war.  Twenty four hours notice, if you please.  I know you like rules and regulations.”

“You’re mocking me.”

“Yes.  And you’re letting me mock you for some reason.  You’re making a lot of concessions in our bargain here.  You have a reason to be doing that,” Tattletale said.  “I’m comfortable leveraging that.”

“I made concessions because I was led to believe that Skitter was going to be the one in charge of matters here.  I investigated her, I met her in person, and I decided she fit the necessary qualifications.  Now I’m finding that things are definitely not what they appeared to be.  She’s not in charge, for one thing, there’s the reckless attack against the Teeth that saw one of my very expensive recruits killed…”

“You don’t really care about that,” Tattletale said.  “You wanted to wean out the ones who couldn’t cut it.  Codex couldn’t cut it.  Good at administration, fantastic cook, skilled when it came to managing people, and could even spar, sure, but she didn’t have the wits about her in a combat situation.  Couldn’t switch gears.”

He closed his eyes, and metal shutters flicked into place as the mask mimicked the movement.  “Please don’t interrupt me.”

“I don’t think you’re getting my point.  I don’t bend to your rules, Accord.  If you want to talk about your dead underling, let’s talk.”

“She was shot in the throat from behind.”

“Are you saying I’m wrong?” Tattletale asked.  “About her being poorly equipped for cape life?”

“No.  The analysis is right.  I won’t disagree.  But I have other concerns.  This business with how you murdered Butcher.  The girl at the bottom of the Boat Graveyard… Cherish… it was a risky decision.”

“Not so risky when you’ve done a read on the situation.  I had all the notes on Butcher Fourteen.  She couldn’t teleport free, not into open water.  She still can’t, and I had a crew use a remote control device to lash a cable to Butcher Fifteen’s pod.  They’ve dropped her into a deeper area of the ocean, and the only thing she’ll be likely to kill are fish.  If we’re lucky, maybe Leviathan will float that way and off himself.”

“It was risky nonetheless.  There was no assurance the plan would work.”

“And we shouldered that risk.  Bitch and Skitter, specifically.  If it didn’t work out, it was their lives on the line.”

“And now we have Skitter taking another risk.  This seems to be a pattern.”

“She’s taking the risk on our behalf,” Tattletale said.  “But that’s not your concern.”

“It’s very concerning to me.”

“But it’s not your concern,” Tattletale said.  There was a strain in her voice, and her fingernails were digging into her costume-covered thighs.  “We aren’t partners, Accord.  Let’s get that straight.  Do we work together?  Yes.  Have we arranged a division of labor?  Yes.  But this is our city, and you’re renting a space.”

“Tenants have rights when interacting with their landlords,” Accord said.

“Rights, yes.  But we’re supervillains.  Don’t forget that,” Tattletale relied.  “It’s our prerogative to be assholes.  And right now?  I’m going to be an asshole.  The contract stands.  Your provisions stand.”

“There’s an escape clause.”

“And you’re free to use it,” Tattletale said.  “Take the clause, leave, abandon the investments you’ve already made in this city…”

“Or attack,” Accord said, “And seize everything you have.”

“Or attack,” Tattletale said.  She sounded more tired than upset.  “You could do that.  Or you can take my offer.”

“Which is?”

“Skitter provided your notes on managing crime in Brockton Bay.  I don’t think either of us can agree to implement it, without knowing the exact outcome of Skitter’s expedition…”

“I agree,” Accord said.  His interest was clearly piqued.  Parian could see the way the eyebrows of his mask had raised a fraction.

“But I like it,” Tattletale said.  “And if your concern is about instability within this city, I can read your work, see the solutions you propose and consider implementing them.  We would give you a hand in shaping policy beyond this group.”

“You’d agree to a contract where you implement a set number of my plans?”

Hellll no,” Tattletale said.

Parian felt her heart skip a beat.  She could see Accord bristle, and his Ambassadors had tensed, as if expecting an order to attack at any second.

“But,” Tattletale said, “I can consider them.  And that might be the best offer you’d ever get.  You know your ideas are good ones.  You know there are ideas that would be worth implementing.  If I agreed to read through them, bring the better points up for discussion within the group, across our entire alliance, and I’m hoping we recruit more than just you… well, there’s a chance they’d see the light of day.”

Accord frowned.  “You’re not promising anything concrete.”

“No.  I am sticking to the deal we arranged.  This is a bonus.  It doesn’t have to be big.  It’s fucking generous as it stands.”

“Please be more civil,” Accord said.  “I’d rather you didn’t swear.”

“And I’d rather you didn’t storm in here and act like you were personally offended by our particular way of doing things,” Tattletale said.  “I’ve offered you a fucking nice deal.  Are you fucking interested?”

“Tattletale,” Grue said.  “Enough.  I think he gets the point.”

“You’re in charge, then, Grue?” Accord asked.

There was a pause.  “Yes.  But I’m standing by what Tattletale said.”

“I’ll have to content myself with that, and I’ll give my answer to you, as one team leader to another.  I hope to continue working with the Undersiders, and I very much hope that things don’t degenerate any further, as they have with the situation at the PRT offices right now.”

“There’ll be enemies,” Grue said.

“Yes.  But there won’t be further disturbances?  Nothing further that makes national news about your group?”

National, Parian thought, stunned.  We’re national news.

She couldn’t help but think of her family, of her friends and neighbors.  Her sole remaining family member, her friend from the Fashion program.  The people who’d come to her territory for protection that she’d ultimately failed to provide.

She felt a sick feeling in her gut at the thought.  They’d been surgically altered, and, according to the most recent emails, they were getting surgery to slowly regain their old faces.  Were they watching the news right now, thinking of her?

“I’m on the same page as Tattletale,” Grue said.  “That’s our business, not yours.”

“I see.  Well, I can hope.”

Accord extended a hand.

Parian felt her pulse quicken.  A trap?  A sneak attack?

Grue took the hand and shook it.  Parian could feel the blood pumping in her ears as she watched Accord and the Ambassadors for any sign of betrayal.

Nothing.  Accord lowered his hand, then extended it again, in Tattletale’s direction.

She stood, then staggered.

Trap, Parian thought.

Except it was only Tattletale’s mental fatigue.  The villainess, with her mercenary’s help, made her way to the foot of the stairs.  She leaned on the man as she crossed the room to Accord.

“Injury?” he asked.  “I’m thinking a concussion.”

“Migraines.  I overused my power.”

“Ah,” Accord said.  He extended his hand a fraction further, and Tattletale shook it.  “I… suppose I can sympathize with that.”

“I bet.”

“I appreciate your willingness to meet, in light of your condition,” he said.  “That said, it would be best if we did not interact further.  I’d rather not terminate our alliance by being forced to murder you.  It wouldn’t be polite to say how many times I came close, just tonight.”

“I think we’re on the same page there,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t want you to kill me either.  Just know that if you tried, succeed or fail, I have a lot of questions about your involvement with Cauldron that could start circulating specific channels.”

“Ah, you’re proposing mutually assured destruction?”

“Is there any other way we’re going to manage this long-term?”

“No.  No, I suppose not,” Accord said.

“Great,” Tattletale said.  She managed a feeble smile.

“Then I wish you a good day,” Accord said.  He managed to make it sound like fuck you, the way people in the Victorian era might have.

That done, Accord turned to leave, marching out of the doors with his cadre of Ambassadors.

When he was out of sight, Tattletale sagged.  Her mercenary had to catch her to keep her from falling to the ground.

“Okay,” Grue said.  “What was that?”

“Me doing the best I could,” Tattletale said.  “And speak quieter, please.  My head’s throbbing… I feel like someone’s hitting my eyeballs with hammers.”

In a marginally quieter voice, Grue said, “You provoked him.”

“I dealt with him the only way I could.  Working with old info.  Don’t even have my power, only what I got on our earlier meetings.  Shit, I haven’t even read that booklet Skitter gave me.”

“Well,” Regent said.  “This is fantastic.  Skitter really screwed the pooch here.”

Bitch tensed at the idiom.

“We don’t know what she did,” Grue said.  “Or what she’s doing.”

There was a pause.

Parian had felt lost, in well over her head, since she’d set foot in here.  These guys were a group, an organization, they had their way of doing things, their rhythm.  It was so hard to jump in, to say anything.

But now, maybe, she felt like she had a role.  A reason to be here.

“I… I think I understand what she’s doing,” Parian said.

All eyes fell on her.  Even Bitch’s gaze, intimidating and angry.

“Generally,” Parian said.  “Um.  I get what she’s…”

“Spit it out,” Imp said.

“She’s a lot like me,” Parian said.  “She wants to protect people.  She’s willing to make sacrifices for the people she cares about.”

“I’ve discussed that with her,” Grue said.

“Terribly unhealthy,” Regent commented.  “Worse than smoking, even.”

“So maybe this is a way to do that,” Parian said.  “A way to protect all of us.  She gives Director Tagg exactly what he wants.  Gets him to back down.  And this is how.  She uses herself as a bargaining chip.”

“I don’t fucking care about Tagg,” Bitch growled.  “I’d rather have Skitter than have him gone.”

“It’s more than that!” Parian raised her voice, hurrying to speak before she could get lost in the jumble, unable to cut in and find a voice in their dynamic.  She had objectivity they didn’t.  The ability to see the big picture.  “I… I think she’s decided on a way to help all of us.  With more things than just Tagg.  And maybe… maybe she helps herself, too.”

“Herself?” Regent asked.

“I’m just… I know what it’s like, to be on a single track, to feel compelled to keep going forward.  It isn’t easy, to disappoint the people you care about, but sometimes it comes down to doing that… or doing what they want and being unhappy.”

“Unhappy,” Grue said.

“Was there ever a time when she was with us, where she really seemed happy?  Content?”

“I know my brother’s made her happy,” Imp said.  “Ick.”

Regent sniggered.

“I didn’t,” Grue said, his voice quiet.  “Make her happy.”

“I don’t know anything more than you guys do,” Parian said, “But…Maybe she needs to make peace with her guilt and whatever, go to jail, and try to make amends with her dad?  If that’s part of it, can we really say no?”

“What if it isn’t part of it?” Tattletale asked.  “What if leaving us is the last thing she wants, but she’s doing it anyways?”

“Are you saying that’s the case?” Grue asked.

“No.  My power’s out of commission.  I can’t say anything for sure,” Tattletale said.  “Except we respect Taylor-”

“We’ve been through hell with Taylor,” Grue cut in.

“And we trust her,” Tattletale said, glancing at Bitch.

So she picked up on that too, Parian thought.

“…So let’s trust that she has an idea what she’s doing,” Tattletale finished.

Bitch moved, stepping forward, her boots making a heavy noise on the floor as she advanced.  She struck out, kicking.

The widescreen television with its tripod mount came crashing down, shattering.

Nobody spoke in the aftermath of that small gesture of pain and frustration.

They looked amongst one another, searching each other for some validation, for a response.

It was Bitch who broke the spell.  “If the PRT fucks her…”

“We destroy them,” Grue finished.  Bitch nodded.

The most sensible member in the group in agreement with the most violent, Parian thought.

“All we can do is wait,” Tattletale said.

“How long?”

The question had come from Bitch.  She was tense, rigid, her jaw set, eyes narrowed.

“Nightfall,” Tattletale said.  “We wait until the sun sets.  That’s the only instruction Skitter gave me.”

“What are we waiting for?” Grue asked.  “A signal?”

“If we don’t get a signal,” Tattletale said, “We act.”

Parian’s thoughts were buzzing with possibilities, more details, more responsibilities.  Taking on more territory, giving up some to Grue.

Still struggling to find a way to be relevant.

She reached her atelier and dismounted from the six-legged horse, stepping down to the floor of the alley.  It had been a little more stable than a four-legged unicorn.  She’d have to refine the idea, find a balance.  Specific forms for specific tasks.

She was behind.  Behind in her territory, behind in applying her powers to combat situations, in being able to understand and interact with people like Accord.

And until she figured those things out, she couldn’t truly be a part of the Undersiders.  And if she wasn’t a real member of the group, she couldn’t change anything where it really mattered.

The unicorn came apart into scraps of cloth.  The individual scraps rolled up, were neatly tied by braids of thread.  She lifted the largest bundle and made her way around the corner to her front door.

Ten and a half hours before sunset.  That was the deadline.  Skitter’s deadline, and the point that would determine whether this became an all-out war against the PRT or something entirely different.

Parian stopped in her tracks.  Lily leaned beside the front door, in full costume as Flechette.  The stainless steel shoulder-rest of her arbalest sat on the ground, and she used a single fingertip to keep the weapon upright, unloaded and pointed at the sky.

With a flick of a finger, Lily made the thing spin, stopped it, spun it the other way around.

“You know where I live,” Parian said.

“The PRT knows where you live,” Lily said.  “It’s on record.  But we’re not supposed to act like we know.  I thought you’d forgive me that, given our history.”

“Is there news?  About Skitter?”

Lily shook her head.  “They asked me to go out and make a phone call, outside of Skitter’s range.  But they didn’t seem to know how far that was, so I…”

“Made your way to the far end of the city,” Parian said.

“Yeah,” Lily said, just under her breath, looking down at her weapon.  Again, she spun it.

“You didn’t even know I’d be here.”

“You weren’t.  I just got an angry call from Miss Militia,” Lily said.  “Been out here for a bit.”

“For…”

“Thirty minutes.”

“Ah.”

Parian put the bundle of cloth down, resting the end on the ground.  After a moment’s thought, she leaned it against the wall by her front door.  By Lily.

She felt so conspicuous.  She knew Lily hated the black costume, with the black hair, the black dress.

Lily, who’d been maybe the only person to give her support without being asked.  Lily, who was… chivalrous.  Gallant.  Stubborn.  So very stubborn.

“Did you come here for a reason?”  Parian asked, in the same second Lily asked, “Where were you?”

“You first,” Lily said, after the momentary confusion.

“Why did you come here?”

“Don’t know,” Lily said.

“That’s a hell of a reason to wait thirty minutes.”

Lily glanced left, then right, as if looking for bystanders.

“This area isn’t occupied,” Parian said.  “My atelier is the only one on the block that you can live in.  The rest are sealed up.”

“Atelier?”

“Workshop.  Studio.  Only fancier.”

“Ah,” Lily said.  Then, as if she remembered why she’d been looking for bystanders, she let herself slide down until she was sitting with her back to the wall.

“That’s it for answers?” Parian asked.  “Don’t know?”

“No.”

“Just talk me through what’s going through your head.  Doesn’t have to be relevant.  Don’t have to censor your thoughts.”

“Definitely have to censor my thoughts,” Lily said.  She glanced up at Parian.

She felt her heart rate pick up with that, oddly enough, just like it had with Bitch.

Except Lily wasn’t dangerous, was she?

God, I hate this city,” Lily  said.

“It’s… a hard city to like,” Parian said.  “But it’s not a city that lets you throw it away.  It’s tenacious, both in the big picture, and in how it attaches itself to you.”

“Yeah,” Lily murmured.  “Before I came here, everything was on track.  I could see my future ahead of me, straight as an arrow.  Career path, eventual Flechette action figures.  Every single one of my teachers and superiors seemed to know I had potential.  One of the only people who could hurt an Endbringer…”

Lily raised her unloaded arbalest, aimed it, “Pow.  Critical damage every time, and I don’t miss.”

“I remember what you said when you talked to Skitter and Miss Militia.  You don’t feel so confident, now.”

“I’ve been trying to think of where I might be comfortable.  Where I could find what I’ve lost.  During the whole post-Leviathan thing, I was always most comfortable here.”

Here?” Parian looked over at her Atelier, an unassuming, simple building.

“With you.”

“Ah.”

“And… fuck me, because I’m not acting confident.  I told myself I’d act confident, but… I’m blowing this.”

“Don’t stress so much about acting,” Parian said.

She reached up and detached her mask from the metal frame that held it over her face, then pulled the wig off as well.  She let them fall to the ground.

A pure white mask, in contrast to her own Arab ethnicity.  She’d meant to make a point of it, to challenge people to wonder more about what was behind the masks, about their assumptions about heroes and villains.  That had fallen apart when Leviathan and the Slaughterhouse Nine had derailed her plan to unmask herself and start a career as a fashion designer.

More than the fashion designer part, it was the sudden recollection of what the Slaughterhouse Nine had done that took the wind from her sails.

She tipped over the roll of cloth and then seated herself on it, facing Lily.

Belatedly, she said, “We act too much.  Hide behind masks way too often.”

Lily looked around to double-check, then removed her visor.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Lily said.

“Do what?”

“I don’t know.  But whatever it is, I can’t do it.”

“I know the feeling,” Parian replied.

“Where were you?”

“You don’t get to ask that,” Parian said, quiet.  “Just like you don’t get to act like you own me, to say that my costume is anything but my choice.”

“You remember that,” Lily said, looking down at the ground.

“Hard to forget.”

“Skitter asked me what I wanted,” Lily said.  “I gave her my answer.”

“You wanted me.”

Lily nodded.

“I’ve already had someone try to claim me, you know,” Parian said.  “They thought that I was something that was owed to them, because of what they’d done.  That being nice meant I was obligated to accept a date.  And that line of thinking goes one step further.  They think flowers and a few dates mean I’m obligated to come over to his apartment to spend the night.”

“That’s not what I’m doing,” Flechette said.

Parian didn’t answer.

“I mean, it’s not… my motives aren’t…”

“Carnal?”

“Sketchy,” Flechette supplied.

“That doesn’t make it any better.”

“No,” Lily agreed.  “Fuck.  I was hoping this would go better.”

“And… I’m not so sure your motives were pure.  I’ve seen you sneak glances.  For someone who has a superpower that gives her enhanced timing, I’d think you’d be better at it.”

Lily turned red, very deliberately not looking at Sabah.

“Once bitten, twice shy,” Sabah said, almost to herself.  “I’ve been bitten once.”

“Is that a no?”

“To?  You haven’t asked me anything.”

Lily shifted her grip on her arbalest, then set it on the ground, spun it on the end again, as though it were an oversized top.

“Skitter asked me for what I want.  What do you want?”

“Direction.  No, not even that.  It’s almost like I don’t care as much about what I do, as me feeling like I want to do something well, but I can’t.”

The Japanese-American girl frowned.  “And this is what you want to do?”

“Yes,” Sabah answered.

Why?”

“Because it’s the only way to get the rest of the money that my people need.”

“Your people?”  Lily started to glance around, then stopped.  “Not these people.  Your family, friends.  From Dolltown.”

Sabah nodded.  Her heart was heavy with the thought alone.  “And because I need to be a part of the Undersiders if they’re going to listen to me, and I need them to listen to me if I’m going to influence them, keep them on a straighter path.  To protect people from them, and to protect them from themselves.

“And that’s all worth giving up the life you want to lead?”

Parian thought of Skitter.  Of the motivations that could be driving the girl to turn on her friends.

“I think it is.”

“Then… would you take me along for the ride?”

Sabah glanced at Lily.  Lily was staring at her, an intense look.  Scary in its own way, but not quite in that way that was a reminder of uglier days.

“No,” Sabah answered.  “I don’t think I can.  It’s not that I don’t trust you, but…”

But I don’t trust youI can’t have someone try to possess me, to control me.

She couldn’t find a graceful way to say it, and she could see the pain on Lily’s face, the doubt, the embarrassment, as the pause lingered.

Then Lily seemed to compose herself.  “Not as a partner.”

“No?’

“I meant, um.  A lieutenant.”

“A lieutenant?”

“I’m not good at being alone,” Lily said.  “I found that out a while ago, and what’s happened these past few weeks, they only made it clearer.  I need company, and your company is what I want the most.  I can’t say it’ll be forever, but for now…”

Being together… having a helping hand where it counted.  Having firepower and authority both, to help win over the locals.  It wasn’t perfect, it wouldn’t be fast…

But maybe it wouldn’t be such an uphill climb.

“You’d leave the Wards?”

“They’re falling apart anyways.  I’d… I’d have to give up my arbalest.  Without tinker maintenance, it won’t keep working.  But I always liked the idea of the rapier, been meaning to go back to it.  And I have darts.”

“You’re rambling.”

“I’m terrified,” Lily said, meeting Sabah’s eyes.  She looked it.

She’s taken a leap of faith, and she hasn’t touched ground.

“You’re saying I call the shots.  You’re my lieutenant, my right hand?”

“Yes,” Flechette said.

“My knight in shining armor.”

“I’d need a new costume, and a new name, probably.  For legal reasons.  If you said yes.  I was thinking more a stylized musketeer look than a knight, but I can work with whatever.”

Still rambling.

“A new costume is something I can do,” Sabah answered.  “And yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes,” Sabah said.  “You’ll be my lieutenant.  And you’re okay with that?”

“That’s… what I’m offering.  The last thing I want is to make you uncomfortable.”

“That’s good enough,” Sabah said.  She stood, approaching Lily.

Needle and thread.  Somehow it felt more right, more solid, than any of the paths she’d started on, only to later abandon.  Maybe because she wasn’t doing it alone.

She put two fingers to Lily’s chin, raising it, and then she kissed her lieutenant.

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Imago 21.5

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The rain had softened to a light drizzle by the time we finished.

My sundress was lying on the floor, a little worse for wear where I’d thrown it to the ground and used it to sweep much of the grit, plaster and sawdust from the spot where we’d laid down.  I shook it, then called my swarm, let my bugs crawl up my body to sweep and brush my skin clean.  The bugs made their way up the sides and back of my neck to my hair, then weaved through it as a mass, their bodies and mandibles helping to set it in order.  Others progressed down my arms, making their way to the dress, doing much the same with the fabric.

I was just about finished when I caught Brian staring at me.

I raised an eyebrow, and he smiled a little, shook his head, turned his attention to his costume.

I pulled the sundress over my head, and it was my chance to take a look at Brian.  He had only the leggings of his costume on, and was working one arm into the sleeve, his chest bare behind the ‘v’ of the unzipped upper body.  The way his muscles shifted fluidly beneath his skin, the lines of his body… I felt an ache that wasn’t heartbreak.  A pang of loss on a baser level.

I wanted him, damn it.  Wanted to nourish every sense with him.  The visual of him, the taste of his sweat when I kissed his skin, his smell, the bass of his voice and the little noises he made.  The feel of him, warm, the way every part of him was firm without being unyielding.

But no, it wasn’t going to work out.  There was no long-term, and trying to cling to one would only spoil it all.

We hadn’t said anything for a few minutes.  I didn’t want to taint the silence with something that would only be awkward or ineffectual, couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say, but I didn’t want to leave him feeling like I was ashamed or unhappy, leaving it like this.

While he was still pulling on the upper part of his costume, I approached him, stood on my tiptoes, and then kissed his cheek.

Brian didn’t respond as I got the bags, collected the paperwork, folder and booklet Citrine had given us and headed down the stairwell to the street, moving at something between a brisk walk and a jog every step of the way.

There were no catcalls as I made my way back to the upper end of downtown.  Many of the construction workers had taken shelter while the rain was heavier, moving indoors, and the ones who’d stayed outside were still in a state where they were focusing more on the work than on the wet, noisy, damaged world beyond the work site.

The thin drizzle of rain was bothersome.  It wasn’t so much the wet, or the fact that it threatened to draw attention to me.  It was the fact that it was raining just enough that it was uncomfortable, but I’d still look lame if I used an umbrella.

No matter, in the grand scheme of things.  I stretched as I walked, one arm over my head, one hand gripping it and pulling.  It was a good feeling.

For a while now, it had been hard to put a finger on my emotions.  What I was feeling now was crystal clear.  Loss.  Disappointment.  Relief.

All things considered, I felt oddly upbeat as I boarded a bus and caught a ride to my territory.  I had to take off my hat to avoid bumping it into people, and felt conspicuous, the ends of my hair wet, hat gone, my light, tourist-y appearance a little the worse for wear.

I headed to the empty seats at the back, and I couldn’t help but notice that one thirty-something year old guy was studying my face as I walked by.  He was with two or three of his friends, all of them tanned and dressed like the construction workers I’d passed.  Laborers.  I directed a small few mosquitoes to him as I brushed past.  One on each elbow and knee, to give me a sense of where he was moving and what he was doing.

It was thanks to the bugs that I could get the general idea of his movements: him reaching out to one of his friends, tugging on their arm, then leaning close to say something I couldn’t hear.

Damn it.  Not a problem, like it would be if someone spotted me on my way away from my territory, creating the possibility that heroes might crash the meeting with Citrine, but nonetheless inconvenient.

I sat in the back corner and set the bags beside me.  They were loaded down with hostile bugs, I had the handle to the bus’ emergency exit beside me, and my weapons were near-to-hand if things really got ugly.

The four men approached me, and I kept looking out the window, feigning a lack of concern.

They sat around me, all well-built, tall men, a barrier between me and the rest of the occupants of the bus. The one who’d noticed me glanced my way; I met his eyes, and he gave me a curt nod before deliberately ignoring me.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  I appreciated the idea behind it, assuming it was for my benefit.  Was it the notion that I was a girl who needed protection?  Or was I more bothered by the fact that I probably needed a shower, and they were sitting a little close to me?

It might help to get a license, I thought.  And a car.

I smiled just a little at the idea that I might get a Volkswagen Beetle.  It’d be stupid, impractical, and it would be too obvious.  A van would be better in every respect.

Not that I couldn’t buy a number of cars.  A bug, a van, a boat… even a helicopter, assuming Atlas wouldn’t hold up.

No.  I was being unrealistic.  Still, it was an amusing thought.

Everyone exited the bus at the final stop, the area where the ferry had once been.  My self-styled escorts were among the last to leave, departing without so much as a glance my way, and I was last to step out into my territory.

I made my way deeper into my territory, my hat still stuffed in a bag, the soft rain wetting my hair and beading my skin.  My escorts made their way to a construction site, but other  people were recognizing me now that I was in my territory, and their recognition only helped others to notice.  Groups of people stepped out of my way in respect, in fear or a mingling of the two.

There was no rush.  I took a roundabout route, watching over my bugs and ensuring that everything was in an appropriate place.  Rats were still something of an issue, having feasted and multiplied many times over in the aftermath of the Leviathan attack, and I made a point of finding and exterminating any litters I found.

Mosquitoes had multiplied in the early spring, with shallow water everywhere for them to lay their eggs and multiply.  They were one species I wanted to keep away from people, and I made a point of moving them away from all residential areas.  They were the filler in my swarms, one of the only species around that I could eradicate or use up entirely without doing too much to upset the local ecology.

I wanted Brockton Bay stable, everything in order.  That wasn’t limited to the human aspect of things.

I entered an area where the damage had once been heaviest, and where much of the construction had recently finished.  Here, things had been brought up to standards.  The roads were still wide, owing to the fact that this area had once been intended more for industry and the movement of big ships and trucks, and that had been preserved.  Even the alleys, marked clearly with new one-way signs, tended to be wide enough that trucks and cars could potentially pass through in pairs.  But where there had once been dilapidated warehouses and factories, the buildings were quaint, neat and tidy, with siding in whites and light colors.  ‘Seaside colors’ I’d heard it described.  Colors that were warmer and more enticing, fitting with the boardwalk-in progress, the beaches that were being thoroughly cleaned, and the bay itself.  The water was gray now, reflecting the overcast sky above, but it was capable of being a brilliant, stellar blue.

People were already officially moving into this area, which had once been the part of Brockton Bay that people were urged to stay away from.  Couples, laborers, people with kids.

I felt a measure of distaste as I spotted a crude attempt at my ‘tag’ on the side of one of the nicer, newer homes: a narrow, pale blue condominium.  I’d made requests that the graffiti be kept subtle, and I’d told people who worked for me to pass on word that others shouldn’t take it on themselves to repeat the mark elsewhere, to limit confusion.  My emblem, a beetle with wings spread, marked walls and signposts, predominantly on the buildings that had yet to receive attention.  Still, there were crude replicas here and there.  I’d have to make sure someone was watching out for that and passing on the word.

People were still watching me, eyeing me as I walked through the area.  Mosquitoes I’d brought to myself were clinging to me, leaving little doubt about who I was.  There was no need to hide.  I’d have other measures in place before too long.

My detour brought me around to what had become a makeshift memorial.  There were flowers and the like forming a ring where a fence had been erected.  In the center of the ring, an oval shape sat embedded in the ground.  This was the area where we’d fought Leviathan.  A time-distortion grenade had gone off, and three heroes had been trapped inside.  Brockton Bay’s own Dauntless among them.

The center of the bubble was as impenetrable as Clockblocker’s power, while the effects were more nebulous around the edges.  Dust and moisture were caught in the sphere, obscuring the contents, all moving a fraction of a glacial pace.  There was a hand print at one point where someone had tried to touch it, shifting the dust and moisture, losing some skin in the process.  In other spots, less respectful people had thrown things at the sphere.  Pennies, sticks.  That had stopped when others had tidied up the area and the flowers had started appearing here and there.

There had been talk of blanketing the entire thing in flower petals, so it wasn’t a gray-brown egg with a neat pattern, but others wanted to leave it be, protecting it with a bubble or shelter so the rain and dust could clear away, and people who visited could see the three heroes as they were when they were caught within, in the midst of being thrown through the air, the very moment they effectively gave their lives for the sake of the city and the world.

The entire thing was framed by the surrounding buildings.  There’d been too much damage from the skirmish with Leviathan for them to stand, and I’d made a special request to the designers for the rebuilding.  They were shaped so that there was something of a clearing around the bubble.  The city could decide what to do with the bubble itself; I’d done what I could with the surroundings.

I reached into one of the shopping bags, retrieving a small bouquet.  I laid it just outside the fence, where it joined innumerable other tokens of respect: Letters, flowers, an action figure, a Dauntless poster with something illegible scribbled on it.

The city was healing, but there were still scars.  Some were smaller, like this.  Others, like the appropriately named ‘Scar’ downtown, or the lake Leviathan had created, weren’t so minor, would loom in the awareness of the people who lived here for a long time to come.  The ‘Scar’ had been encased in a squat, windowless, zig-zagging piece of architecture.  The lake would likely remain as it was, until the city found a way to make more use of it.  Neither was particularly pleasant to think about, either in terms of what had happened or the ideas about what could come in the future.

I could only hope that we could be so lucky in other areas, to have only scars and unpleasant reminders.

I was halfway back to my lair when I sensed intruders.  In an instant, my nerves were on edge, bugs stirring from the surroundings to investigate as discreetly as I could.

I thought of Leviathan attacking the area, of Mannequin’s visits, of Burnscar.

Except these were heroes present.

I let myself relax a fraction, waited until I was as calm as I could get.  Then I approached.

Parian was sitting on a bench under some eaves, Miss Militia leaning against a wall a few steps to her right, holding a bottle of water, and Flechette was a little ways away, staring up at a building in progress.  My people hung back, staring or watching the heroes with a wary eye, hesitant.  They couldn’t be sure if there was a confrontation in the works or if they should keep working, so they weren’t leaving and they weren’t really working.

Others were staring at me, noticing me.  Miss Militia seemed to catch onto the reaction of the crowd even before I was in her field of view.  She straightened and a rifle appeared in one hand.

Flechette saw the heroine move out of the corner of one eye, turned my way with her arbalest in hand.

Neither of them pointed their weapons at me.  A good sign.

“You’re in my territory,” I said, when I was in earshot.

“Apparently,” Flechette said, her voice level, “We can’t go anywhere in this city without being in someone’s territory.”

Miss Militia shot the girl a warning look.  “Parian invited us.”

I glanced at Parian, who was still sitting in her seat, a cloth doll in her lap.  “I would have preferred if she’d asked me first, but fine.”

“We wanted to talk,” Miss Militia said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Because that’s worked very well in the past few days, hasn’t it?  Or did you miss the notice?  The PRT outed me.”

“I’m aware,” Miss Militia said.  “I was there when they made the decision.  I spoke against it, for all the good it did.”

“For the record…” I said, and I let bugs crawl from beneath my dress to progress along my arms and legs, up my neck and around the edges of my face.  I didn’t have my costume, but I could use intimidation to armor myself.  “Your stay here is a very temporary one.  I can ask you to leave at any time.  Your choice whether that’s peacefully or if I evict you.”

I could see Flechette tense.

“We’re not looking to fight,” Miss Militia said.

“Good,” I said, glancing around me.  The rain was still pattering down around me, and the street was damp, not flooded, but it wouldn’t be good to offload my bags there.  I ventured under the eaves and set the bags down in a dry spot.  I folded my arms.  “Give me your weapons.”

“There’s no point to giving you mine,” Miss Militia said.  “I could call it back to me, switch it to something else and shoot you before you could react.”

“That’s fine,” I told her.  “This is a symbolic gesture.  Please give me your weapons.”

She stared at me, taking me in.  Then she looked down at the gun.  It flickered and became a bowie-knife.  She tossed it into the air, caught it by the flat of the blade, and then approached me, extending the handle in my direction.

I took the blade, and I could swear it reacted, vibrating.

“It’s alive.”

“Yes,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s a part of me.”

A part of her, as in… a part of her mind? Or is it her passenger?

I felt like there was something more I should say in response to that, but I decided to focus on the matter at hand. People were watching from the sidelines.

“Flechette.  Your arbalest,” I said.

She looked far less agreeable than Miss Militia had been.  She glanced at her superior, received a nod in response.

Flechette placed the arbalest on the ground halfway between us, then backed off.

I was willing to bet she had other weapons, but it wasn’t worth the effort to get them from her.

“You owe me,” Flechette told Parian.  Parian didn’t respond, staring down at the ground.

“She owes you?” I asked.

“I was home.  I came back because she asked, and it’s probably coming out of my time off.  And you weren’t even here when we arrived.  We waited twenty minutes.”

“I would have been if I had any notice,” I said.

“I don’t want something ugly to happen on my vacation day,” Flechette said.  “That’s all I’m saying.  Not happy-cool about this as it is.”

“Were you shopping?” Miss Militia asked, as if she were trying to change the subject or distract me from Flechette.  When I looked, her eyebrows were indicating mild surprise.

“I can’t go shopping anymore,” I said.  “I don’t want to sound hostile, but reminding me of that isn’t going to help anything.”

“You’re upset,” Miss Militia said.  Before I could think of a retort, she added, “You deserve to be.”

I shut my eyes briefly.  When I asked my question, I sounded almost exasperated, “Why are you here?”

“The first reports came back from inside the portal, and they’re promising.”

I nodded.

“Fresh water, lumber.  Geological surveys suggest there’s mining, and that’s all in close proximity to the portal.  Plant, animal and insect life seem to have evolved in rough parallel to our own.  Worldwide, there’s few signs of pre-existing human civilization, and no human life that we’ve been able to detect.  The deviation point seems to be nearly five thousand years ago.  Several teams are working on analyzing the sites where humans settled, looking for the cause of extinction.  We’ll have reports back soon, and we expect to make a statement to the world at large in a few days.”

“That’s good to know,” I said.  I didn’t mention that Tattletale had her own teams present.  If she weren’t nursing a bad migraine, I suspected she would have already informed me of the details.

“Even if it turns out there’s a plague, parasite or hostile agency in this other world, the sheer value of the resources on the other side are going to make this portal very valuable.  I think it’s safe to say Brockton Bay stands to become a rich city, and that begins the moment the news gets out.”

I nodded slowly.

“You don’t look surprised.”

“Expected something like that,” I said.  “I suppose this means you want to talk to the villains that are currently controlling this soon-to-be-rich city’s underworld.”

“Dragon and Defiant came to Brockton Bay with the interest of setting up a plan, drawing a truce between your group and ours.  I suspect Dragon already had suspicions about this other world and everything it entailed.”

“Except things got screwed up along the way,” I said.

“Yes.  And on the other side of things, particular events came to light, validating things you’d said, on several fronts.”

I glanced at Flechette.  I’d given her directions to find the armband.  There was also the business with the leading heroes of the Protectorate being complicit in the Cauldron debacle.  I wasn’t sure Flechette was up to date on that one.

“You checked out the armband?”  I asked Flechette.

It was Miss Militia who answered, “I was informed about possible tinker material being passed around and investigated, possible contraband.  It was Flechette investigating the device.  We contacted Defiant together and got the answers we were looking for, in a much more direct manner.”

“He was your friend.”

“A colleague and a friend, yes.  We were very good at different things.  He told me he was sorry he couldn’t attend this meeting.  He’s… preoccupied at present.  Flechette, Defiant and I had a long series of discussions that led nowhere in particular.  It only pointed to an increasingly ugly situation without an easy resolution.  Until Parian contacted Flechette about a meeting.”

“With me,” I said.

“With you.”

I glanced back at Parian.  She wasn’t moving, still sitting in a chair, not looking our way.

“Okay,” I said.  “We can talk.”

“Good.  Let me start off by extending an apology.  I’m sorry things turned out as they did.  I don’t agree with the way that incident played out.”

That incident.  The thing at the school.

“We looked back at what happened with your history at the school, the allegations of bullying-”

“Stop,” I said.

She did.

“If you’re going to say anything on the subject, don’t mince words.  You know who Shadow Stalker was beneath the mask.  You probably have an idea of the kind of things she did.  Don’t pretty it up by using words like allegations.”

Flechette stared at me.

“Not allegations then.  The bullying, the abuse you endured.  I don’t like that it happened.  I don’t like that we were complicit in it.  It fills in quite a few blanks, helping me make sense of what happened after you uncovered Shadow Stalker’s secret identity.  Defiant knows too, now.  I recognize that it might even have pushed you to take a different direction with your newfound powers.”

“I got my powers because of her,” I said.

Miss Militia fell silent.

“Early January, followed by a hospital stay.  You can look it up.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I suspected it was your mother’s passing that caused your trigger.”

“See,” I told her. “There’s one thing that’s really grating with you heroes.  You keep saying sorry.  Oh, you guys are sorry your top members were kidnapping people and turning them into freaks.  You guys are sorry that some of your members bought their powers.  You’re sorry that your bosses crossed a line, trying to drop bombs on our team members after we did the grunt work of facing the Slaughterhouse Nine.  You’re sorry that you went to such extremes to rehabilitate your group’s sociopath that you let her get away scott-free with the abuse she was inflicting on a bystander.  But you don’t change.  You don’t do anything about it.”

There was enough venom in my voice that Flechette had started eyeing her arbalest, where it sat in the rain.  One of her hands was poised in the air, as if she were preparing to reach into a pouch at her side.  She was looking at the crowd around us, and I couldn’t tell if it was because she was worried they’d respond if she attacked me, or if she was double checking they were out of earshot.

“That’s why we’re here,” Miss Militia said, calm.

“That’s why we’re here,” I echoed her.  “Yeah.  Well said.  All those events I just mentioned, they’re part of why I’m here.  I’d say you have nobody to blame but yourselves for the fact that you have me to deal with, but I’m willing to admit I’m largely at fault for the decisions I made.  You guys… you just greased the wheels, I suppose.”

“We’d like to change that dynamic.  Defiant, Dragon, myself-”

“You want to change, but you’re still working for them.  For the Protectorate,” I said.

“We have to.”

I frowned, forced myself to relax.  “Dragon said the same thing.  Tattletale filled me in on the reasoning.  You think we need the Protectorate.”

“We do.  And if everyone with enough of a conscience to feel regret over these events were to leave, I don’t think anyone will be happy with the group of those who stayed behind.”

“There’s another route,” I said.  “Accept that it’s broken, accept that it needs to change, and do something about it.  Recognize that what Tagg did was fucked up, act on that.”

“It’s dangerous.  Things are sensitive.  There’s only an eighteen percent chance of success in the upcoming fight if we face Behemoth.  Twenty-nine percent if it’s the Simurgh, with… a great deal more fallout after the fact.   Without the Protectorate, chances drop to an even lower number than they are, and the damage gets worse.”

Dinah.  The only way they’d have these numbers would be Dinah.

“You’re afraid of rocking the boat when the ship’s sinking,” I said.

“Something like that.”

I sighed.

“But…” Miss Militia hesitated.  “In light of revelations over this past month, keeping recent events in mind, and perhaps because we have more of an insight into who you are, Taylor Hebert, I think we might be more open to more discussion than we were.”

“Who’s we?”

“The Protectorate, the Wards.”

“The PRT?”

Miss Militia shook her head.

It wouldn’t be enough if the PRT wasn’t on board.  There was some argument I wanted to make, something I wanted to say, but I couldn’t articulate it, couldn’t quite form the thought in my head.

“What do you think of this?” I asked Flechette, to buy myself time to think, or maybe in hopes of rounding out the half-formed thought.

“It doesn’t directly affect me,” she said, glancing away.  “I’m still trying to decide if I should trust you.

“If it doesn’t directly affect you, why does this matter?”

“Because I got home and saw my family, and they said I was different, angrier.  And they were right.  Because I’m hearing about everything that’s happening, all these secrets coming out, and I can’t even look at my teammates without wondering if there’s something nefarious about them.  Because Parian was the one good thing I found in this city, and you recruited her,” Flechette said.

Parian looked up.

“That costume, it’s like a slap in the face.  Like, it wasn’t obvious enough you corrupted her.  You had to take the playfulness away?  The joy?”

“Hey,” Parian said, standing.  “It was my decision.”

“She was following advice I gave,” I said.  “She wanted to stand up to the people who are trying to attack her territory, and she wanted to do it without our help.  Being a little more intimidating doesn’t hurt.”

“You-”

“Flechette,” Miss Militia cut her off.

Flechette went limp, the fight gone out of her, just like that.

“I don’t know anymore,” Flechette said.  “I don’t know where I’m going.  Everything was all laid out, a career with the Wards, a career with the Protectorate.  Except I’m not even sure there’s going to be a future anymore… and I’m not sure what happens if there is.”

“I think you and I are very similar on that front,” I said, my voice quiet.

She looked at me, her lips pressed together in anger, then looked away, unable to disagree, as much as she might want to.

“I guess… I guess what it comes down to,” I said, “Is that you have to decide what you want.  What you’re willing to fight for and make sacrifices for.”

Flechette’s eyes flickered over to Parian, then down to the ground.

Ah.

“I’m… alone,” she said.  “I’ve never been alone, never been good at being by myself.  Last few days I was here, I wanted nothing more than to go home.  And when I finally got to… I’ve never felt more disconnected from everyone around me.  It wasn’t what I wanted, or what I needed.  I can’t trust my team, can’t talk to my family, can’t confide anything in my friends.  Sounds stupid when I say that.  Sounds weak.”

“I’m fully aware I don’t have much stock with you, so maybe what I say isn’t worth much to you, but I don’t think less of you for saying that.  The prospect of being all on your own is scary.  It’s harder, and things are hard enough as it is.”

Miss Militia was staring at me.  I met her eyes.

“Interesting to have a conversation with you,” she said, “With a greater understanding of the girl behind the mask.  What do you want, Taylor?”

“I’m not Taylor,” I said.  “In costume or out, I’m Skitter, up until I decide on a new name.”

“Skitter, then.”

“Compromise,” I said.  “Give me compromise.”

“I can try.”

“You can, the Wards can, but the PRT won’t.  You said as much.”

“They have other burdens to bear.”

“And until they work with us, they’re going to be a bucking bull in a china shop,” I said.  “Strutting around and doing catastrophic damage to a delicate situation.  Tagg said this is a war-”

I could see a look flash across Miss Militia’s face.

“-and you can’t reason with people like that,” I said.  “Not people who are hungry for conflict, willing to fight until someone’s too beat up to fight back.”

“No,” Miss Militia said.  Her tone of voice had shifted.  “You can’t.  I’ve heard him say something along those lines before.  A small part of the reason I’m here.”

“Then you agree.  He can’t be leading the PRT if we’re going to reach any kind of consensus.”

“I can speak to some people, but I don’t think I’ll be able change anything.  The very structure of the PRT is built around the idea that the unpowered call the shots, and the capes follow them.”

“We both know that it’s not that cut and dry,” I said.  I glanced at Flechette.  Did she know about Alexandria?

“I’m sorry,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s not in my power.”

“It’s in mine,” I said.  “I think.  I hope.”

I could see the furrow in between her eyebrows.  “What are you thinking?  More violence?  You won’t be able to twist Tagg’s arm to get what you want out of him.”

“I’m still not entirely sure,” I said.  “I think I can twist his arm.  It’ll be easier if you’re willing to compromise.  I need your help to make this work.”

“What sort of help?”

“A mixture of support and passive resistance.  Nothing that hurts the PRT as a whole.  Nothing that hurts the result against the Endbringers.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Specifically?”

“For starters, we treat every situation like you treated the ABB, back in April.  We address threats, tag team them.  Only we communicate more this time around.  The Teeth are a problem, but others are going to arise when word about the portal gets out.”

“Done.  The PRT may not play ball, but we can communicate by other channels.”

“The heat’s off the Undersiders and Ambassadors both.  We can’t do anything constructive if you guys are after us.”

“The PRT will continue to order us to engage you.”

“Fine,” I said.  “Then that’s when you apply passive resistance.  You return to your bosses and you say the mission against the Undersiders was unsuccessful.  Bitch ran, Grue used his darkness, Tattletale must have passed on information.  We do our best to avoid giving you cause to come after us, you don’t attack when the bosses order you to.”

She frowned.  “This is giving you amnesty for past misdeeds, in practice.”

“Yes.  But it ensures we’re all in fighting shape when the next Endbringer fight goes down.”

“Accord remains a problem.”

“We’ll keep him busy, put him in the background.  Tattletale has a sense of his motives.  We can keep him occupied while keeping him from having a direct hand in things.”

“Our passivity would hinge on his.”

“Deal,” I said.

“And you can’t keep pushing things like you have been.  The degree of aggression you’ve been demonstrating, with the attack at the PRT head offices and Valefor, it tests our patience.”

“They noticed, then?  Valefor’s eyeballs.”

“That’s the kind of event that provokes a response from the PRT.”

I nodded.  “It’s supposed to, just a little.  It was a message to Tagg as much as a way of dealing with Valefor.”

“It’s not the sort of thing that will get him to abandon his position or back down.”

“I think it is,” I said.  “But that’s only one aspect of a greater plan.”

I could see her frown.  Not that I could see the lower half of her face, but I saw it in her eyes.

“A day or two,” I said, “Then I stop.  I’ll fill you in on the details as soon as I have them.”

She frowned.

“Flechette,” I said.

“What?”

“Is this satisfactory?  If we call a truce, the local heroes will be free to assist Parian.  I suspect she’ll be willing to accept their help where she’s less accepting of ours.”

“I will,” Parian said.

“Would that make things easier between the two of you?”

“I’m not local,” Flechette’s words were a whisper.

“You could be,” I told her.  “Or you could visit.  I can’t do a lot, but I can maybe help give you your friend back.”

“We can use all the help here we can get,” Miss Militia said.  “If you wanted to join the Wards team on a permanent basis, I could see about arranging something.”

“Let- let me think about it,” Flechette said.  “It’d mean leaving my family.  Or moving them, depending.”

“Then that’s as settled as it’s going to get,” I said.

“I still have concerns about your continued swathe of destruction,” Miss Militia told me.  “If your vendetta against Tagg gets any uglier, this idea won’t hold.”

I’d hoped the distraction of talking to Flechette would keep her from returning to that topic.

“Give me the benefit of the doubt,” I said.  “Please.”

I could see the lines around her eyes deepen as she frowned.

“Just this once.  It’s all I’ve been asking you guys for, from the beginning.  Trust that I’m doing what I’m doing for a good reason.  I just need you to maybe turn a blind eye here and there, support me when the situation calls for it.  I’ll fill you in where I can, and I’ll make a leap of faith and trust that you’ll know what to do otherwise.”

“Okay,” Miss Militia conceded.

A second passed with nobody speaking.

“I’d extend my hand for you to shake,” I told her, “But we probably don’t want something that blatant popping up on a cell-phone video.  For now, at least, this truce stays unofficial.”

She offered me a curt nod.  I held her knife out towards her, and it dissolved into a mess of green-black energy.  It zipped to Miss Militia’s hand, became a pistol.  She holstered it.

Together with Flechette, she left, making her way out of my territory.  A hundred pairs of eyes watched them leave.  Maybe I could pass word around to get people to keep quiet on the subject.

“Thank you,” Parian murmured.

I glanced at her.

“For what you said to Flechette.  How you said it.”

“I have more respect for you than you’d probably believe,” I told her.  “I hope it works.”

“I think it will.”

I watched the heroes as they departed.

“I’m going to take a shower,” I said, eyeing the light rainfall beyond the eaves of the building.  I shrugged, heading towards my lair.  “Redundant, maybe, but I think a shower is the least of the luxuries I’m entitled to as a wealthy, nationally recognized supervillain.  I’ll talk to you later.  Let me know if you hear back from Flechette.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, to my back.

I looked back, gave her a quizzical look.

“I could have arranged that better,” she said.  “I sprung it on you.”

“No,” I shook my head.  “It was necessary.  No worries on that front.”

I didn’t voice my true thoughts aloud, though.  The conversation with the heroes had needed to happen.  The fact that Parian and Flechette had been present was a stroke of luck.  The downside, the other side of the matter, was that I now had to act before someone in a position of power caught on to what was happening with our truce and ended it prematurely, or before Miss Militia herself reconsidered.  I had to act before I started having second thoughts.

Which was harder than it sounded, because I hadn’t even figured out if there was a way to pull this off without alienating everyone that counted.

Parian had inadvertently accelerated my plan. For that, I hated her, just a little.  That feeling was clear enough, small as it might be.

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Imago 21.1

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Tattletale stood at the very edge of the floor, with a twenty-five story drop just in front of her.  The wind whipped her hair around her, and she didn’t even have a handhold available.  Shatterbird had cleared out all of the window panes, long ago.

She lowered her binoculars.  “He’s gone.  If he was going to pull something off, he’d want to watch and make sure everything went off without a hitch.”

“I could have gone with them,” Imp said.  “Listened in.”

“Not without us knowing their full set of powers,” Tattletale said.

Imp folded her arms, pouting, “I thought you were one of the cool ones.”

“Othello’s a stranger,” Tattletale said.  “I’d think he has an imaginary friend who can mess around with us, but I didn’t see any sign of anyone invisible walking around.”

“Isn’t that the point?” Regent asked.

“No dust or glass being disturbed, none of that.  I might think his ‘friend’ is invisible and intangible, but then what’s the point?  Accord tends to have people with good powers.  Citrine, only bits I could figure out were that she’s got an offensive power, something with substance, and her focus was in a strange place.  She was more focused on places in the room where the strongest powers were clustered, and her focus was fairly indiscriminate beyond that.  Either her power wasn’t anything that anyone here would have been able to defend against, like Flechette’s arrows or a controlled version of Scrub’s blasts, or she’s a trump classification.”

“What’s that?” Regent asked.

“Official classification for capes who can either acquire new powers on the fly,” Tattletale gestured towards Grue, “Have an interaction with other powers that can’t be categorized or they nullify powers.”

“She’s powerful, then,” Regent said.

“She acts like she’s powerful,” Tattletale said, “And she probably is.  But that database of PRT records we had didn’t have anything in it about those two.  I don’t know where he finds those guys, but Accord collects some damn heavy hitters.”

Parian broke her spell of silence.  “You keep talking like we’re going to fight them.”

“Threat assessment,” Tattletale said.  She made her way back to her chair, sitting at the long table.  “Be stupid not to know what we’re getting into, especially with someone like him.”

“Not to mention we’ve gotten in fights with pretty much everyone who ever set up shop in the ‘Bay,” Regent commented.

“There’s nothing imminent,” Grue said.  “Let’s focus on more immediate problems.”

He turned his attention my way.

“Me?” I asked.

“He’s right.  We’ve been so busy preparing for possible fallout that we haven’t had time to discuss this,” Tattletale said.

“I’m a non-factor.  The damage is done, and it’s a question of the dust settling,” I said, staring down at my gloves.  I’d altered some of my costume, but the real adjustments would have to wait until I had time.  I’d made up the extra cloth in an open area of my territory I was devoting to the purpose, but hadn’t had time to turn it into something to wear for tonight.  Some of my mask, the back compartment of my armor and my gloves were more streamlined.  Or less streamlined, depending on how one looked at it.  Sharper lines, convex armor panels that flared out more, gloves with more edges for delivering damage if I had to get in a hand to hand fight.

I’d only done some of the armor, pieces of my costume that were already battered and worn.  My gloves, my mask and the back compartment of my armor tended to take the most abuse.  I’d update the rest later.

“I’m not sure it’s that simple,” Grue said, his voice quiet.  He reached across the table and gripped my hand, squeezing it.  “Have we double checked to see what bridges they’ve burned for us?  My parents aren’t showing any sign of interference.”

“Mom wouldn’t care either way,” Aisha said.  “She might try to capitalize on the attention with appearances on television if she could get money for it.”

“Yeah,” Grue agreed.

“My family wouldn’t care,” Tattletale said.  “I’d be surprised if they didn’t already know.  They’d choose to ignore it, I’d bet.  Parian?  You’ve covered your bases.”

“Most of my family is dead.  The ones who aren’t dead already know,” Parian said.  She looked out toward the window, at the city lights under the night sky.

Tattletale nodded, “Let’s see… Rachel isn’t a problem, not really.  Never had a secret identity.”

Rachel shrugged.  Her attention was on her dogs.  They were shrinking, their extra mass sloughing away.  She already had Bastard sitting next to her, his fur spiky and wet from the transformation.

“And if they tried to come at me through my family, they’d get what they deserved,” Regent said.

“Why?” Parian asked.

“His dad’s Heartbreaker,” Tattletale said.

“Oh.  Oh wow.”

“Funny thing is,” Regent said, “If you think about it, we might be bigger than Heartbreaker, now.  People all over America know who we are, and I’m not sure if Heartbreaker is known that far to the south or west.”

“That’s not our focus right now,” Grue said, squeezing my hand.  “It’s good that we’re talking about safeguards and damage control, but discussing villains and the rest of America can wait.  They came after Skitter while she was out of costume.”

“How are you coping?” Tattletale asked, leaning forward over the table.  “You were pretty heavy-handed tonight.  We discussed it, sure, but I thought you’d at least pretend to play ball with them.”

“I didn’t need superpowered intuition to figure out they weren’t going to cooperate no matter what I said,” I replied.

“But you were provoking them.  Valefor especially.  You up for this, with all the other distractions?”

“This is what I’ve got left, isn’t it?  The good guys decided to play their biggest card.  They couldn’t beat Skitter, so they beat Taylor.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason not to throw myself into this, to deal with both heroes and villains as a full-time thing.  I lay down the law, because now I’ve got time to enforce it.  I can be stricter with the local villains, back you guys up if they cause trouble, and dedicate the rest of my time to my territory.”

“Dangerous road to travel down,” Tattletale said.  “You need to rest, to have downtime.”

“And do what?  Go to a movie?  I’m not sure if any theaters are open-”

“They are,” Tattletale said.

“-And I couldn’t go even if they were.  My face is plastered all over the news, and I’ve got a tinker who might be watching every computer system and surveillance camera in the city, because she’s not willing to go against her bosses.  I can’t go shopping, can’t leave my territory unless I’m in costume and ready for a fight.”

“More time to go after them,” Regent said.  “You can’t let this slide.”

“I’m not planning to,” I said, standing from my seat.

“Hold on,” Grue said, as my hand came free of his grip.

“Walk with me,” I said.  “All of you.  The city may be getting better, but there shouldn’t be lights on in this building, and it’s only a matter of time before one of the local heroes decides to stop by and see why.”

“We can take them,” Rachel said, from the rear of the group.

“We can, and we will,” I said, entering the stairwell.  “On our terms, not theirs.”

“There’s enough enemies to fight,” Parian said.  She had to hurry around the table to catch up.  “We don’t need more.”

“I agree,” Grue said.  “Not that I don’t understand the need for some response, but you’re talking aggression.”

“I’m feeling aggressive,” I said.  “I think.  I don’t know.  Hard to pin it all down.”

“Might be better to wait until you have a better idea of what you’re feeling,” Grue said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, stepping down onto the staircase.  “Logically, there’s no choice but to act on this.  You heard Valefor.  The villain community won’t respect us until we answer the PRT, and the so-called good guys won’t have a reason to think twice about doing it again.”

“The rest of us aren’t as vulnerable as you are,” Regent said.  “Don’t want to sound disrespectful or anything, but we don’t have the same kinds of civilian lives to protect.”

“There’re others,” I said.  “Part of the reason we uphold these rules is because it sets precedents.  Other villains hold to the rules and we benefit, the opposite is true.”

“The flip side of it,” Tattletale said, “Is that we’re risking an escalation in conflict.”

“I don’t see how they can escalate,” I said.  “As I see it, they played the last card they have.  The harder we hit them now, the more clear it is to outsiders that the PRT doesn’t have an answer.  I can show that it doesn’t bother me, and the effect is the same.”

“Doesn’t it, though?” Tattletale asked.  “Doesn’t it bother you?”

“Yes,” I said.  “In terms of me, I don’t know.  I can’t say for sure whether it’s justified or not.  But they went after my dad.”

“I get that,” Grue said, “I’d be pissed if they went after Aisha.  God, you know, when I was swallowed up by Echidna, and she was filling my head with all the worst stuff I could think of, revised memories, it-”

He stopped, and I paused to glance back up the stairs at him.

“Bro?” Aisha asked.

He took a second to compose himself, then said, “I get what you’re saying, Taylor.  Believe me.  I was buried in it.  If anyone here knows what it’s like to want to protect people-”

“That’s not it,” I cut him off.

“No?”

“It’s not about me wanting to protect my dad from the aftermath of all of this.  That’s done, and right now he’s hurting more than he has since my mom died.  Some of that’s on me, and some of it’s on the people who sent Defiant and Dragon into the fray.  The damage is done.”

“And you want to go after the non-capes who made the call?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m sick of being on the defensive.  I hate waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there’s always another shoe, and always a bigger threat.  Speaking of, what’s your interpretation on the company we had tonight, Tattletale?  How do you think they’re going to play this?”

“The Ambassadors are on the up and up, as far as I can guess their direction.  Accord’s unpredictable, which is kind of ironic.  I’d say they’re lower priority.”

“They’re going to stick to the deal?”

“Until Accord’s neurosis pushes him to break it,” Tattletale said.

“Then who’s a higher priority?  The Teeth?”

“Lots of aggressive powers.  Butcher’s at the forefront of it all.  Spree has rapid fire duplicate generation, Vex has the ability to fill empty spaces with small, razor-sharp forcefields, Hemorrhagia is a limited hemokinetic with some personal biokinesis, Animos can transform for limited times and packs a power nullification ranged attack while in his other shape.  There’s two or three others.”

“I’m asking about their goals,” I said.  “Any clue what they’re thinking?  Are they going to come after us?”

“Probably.  We seem weak and unbalanced right now, especially with Parian not doing the absolute best job protecting her territory.”

“I’m trying,” Parian said.

“You’d be doing better if you’d accept help,” Tattletale retorted.  “Except you don’t want to do that because you haven’t committed to this.”

“I will.  I’m still figuring out the more basic stuff you guys figured out ages ago.”

“Commitment on a mental level, P.  That’s more than just coming to meetings.  You don’t have to like us, but respect us, get to know us, trust us and maybe allow for the occasional intimate moment.”

Parian snapped her head around to stare at Tattletale, in a way that was rather more dramatic than the statement warranted.

“Not that kind of intimate.  Sorry hon.  Trust me when I say we’re all pretty accepting here, and there’s no reason to lie; none of us girls here bat for the other team.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Of course,” Tattletale said, smiling.  “But I was talking about letting us see more of the girl behind the mask.  Share those vulnerabilities, let us give you a shoulder to cry on.”

“I don’t need one,” Parian said, “And that has nothing to do with me defending my territory.”

“More than you think,” Tattletale said.  She glanced at me, “They’re the type to prey on weakness, and Parian’s capable of only protecting a short section of her perimeter.”

“Hire people?” I asked.  “Henchmen, mercenaries.”

“I don’t want to put innocents in the line of fire,” Parian said.

“You don’t want others to suffer if the Teeth come after the people you wanted to protect, either,” I said.

“I don’t know what you want me to do.  If I call for help, they’ll retreat, and we wind up wasting your time, while leaving me looking and feeling useless.”

“There’s an alternative,” I said.

“What?”

“What I was talking about before.  Going on the offensive.  Only it’s not about just the good guys.  I’m talking about targeting our enemies, wiping them out before they hurt us and give us cause.”

“That’s dangerous,” Grue said.

“You guys keep saying things along those lines,” I responded.  “I shouldn’t be so strict with our enemies, I shouldn’t ratchet up my involvement in things, I shouldn’t be aggressive.  It’s more dangerous to leave them loose, to always give our enemies the first move.”

“The flip side to that coin is that it gives everyone else we deal with less reason to play ball.  We need to get other villains to parley if we’re going to seriously hold this territory.  The Ambassadors are only step one,” Grue said.  “If some other group comes into town and they’re considering joining us, are they going to look at whatever humiliating defeat we visit on the Fallen and feel it’s better to attack us first?”

“Escalation,” Parian echoed Tattletale’s earlier statement.

I sighed.  Atlas had descended from his vantage point above the building, and flew in to land next to me.  I ran my hand along his horn.

“We’re not… the idea here isn’t to attack you, Taylor,” Tattletale said.  “Hell, what they did was low.  You said it yourself, in that cafeteria.  But you’re talking about changing our dynamic, and it’s a dynamic that’s been working.  We’ve already been through some high-tension, high-conflict scenarios.  A bunch of times when we went days without a chance to breathe.  You want to ratchet that up?”

“Not entirely,” I said.  “If we do this right, if we play this smart, then this should reduce the amount of conflict.  I need to know if you guys are on board.”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.

“I’m in,” Regent replied.  Imp nodded.

“My- my vote doesn’t count,” Parian said.  “I only wanted a show of force, to see if we couldn’t scare the Teeth.  Only I think it had the opposite effect, because what you guys were saying about Butcher is spooking me.  If you guys want to help me with them, okay.  But I don’t want to commit to anything major here, and I can’t tell you guys how to operate, because I’m new to this.  Skip my vote.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?  Grue?”

“I’ve already said my bit,” Tattletale said.  “You call the shots in the field, and act as the face of the group, I do the behind the scenes stuff.  That’s how we worked it out.  I’m kosher with that.”

Grue said, “I have one thing to say.  Think it over, or keep it in mind.  We made it further than most groups do.  Some villains set their sights high, and they fall.  Others try to eliminate their enemies and get eliminated in turn.  Still others set their mind on a goal and they strive for it, only to get worn down along the way.”

He paused, glancing away.  I didn’t interrupt.  Picking the right words?  Thinking about himself, as one of the ones who were worn down by circumstance?  Or maybe he was thinking about me in that light.

“Maybe part of the reason we made it this far was because you weren’t striving for that.  When we were villains, you were trying to be the good guy, behind the scenes.  When we were trying to take out some pretty nightmarish opponents, your focus was on surviving more than it was on attacking.  I didn’t get the impression you craved to be team leader or to rule the city, but you took on the job because you knew the alternative would be disaster.”

I nodded.  Even if I’d wanted to say something in response, I wasn’t sure what I would’ve wanted to say.

“Maybe the reason I’m less comfortable with this is that it’s not your usual pattern.  I feel like you’re wanting to be aggressive because you’re hurt and angry.  There’s nothing to temper it.  Think about it, okay?  I won’t tell you not to do this.  Despite everything I just said, I do trust your instincts, and I’m not sure I trust mine these days.”

“Grue-”

“I don’t.  That’s me being honest.  Do what you have to do, but do it with your eyes wide open.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll try.”

I had a sudden impulse to hug him, to hold him as close and as tight as our costumes allowed, my arms tight around his broad back, his muscled arms holding me just as tight.

The idea alone made me feel like I might suddenly burst into tears, and I found it startling, inexplicable.

I didn’t hug Grue; I wasn’t sure enough about what I was feeling or why, didn’t want to come across as anything but a leader.  Leading this team was something I could do.  Something concrete, with real dividends.

Why had I brought Atlas here?  Had I already been thinking about running?  Avoiding further contact with these guys?  Avoiding Grue?  It was disconcerting to think about.

Tattletale was staring at me.  Could she read what I was experiencing, or get a sense of the emotions that were warring inside me?

“Okay,” I said, and I was surprised at how normal I felt.  “We’re playing this much like we did against the Nine, only we aren’t waiting for better excuses to do it.  Groups of three, one group active at a time, one target at a time.”

“Who are we fighting?” Rachel asked.

“The Fallen, the PRT, and the Teeth.”

“And you’re in this group of three for tonight’s mission?” Tattletale asked.

“Yeah.”  I needed a release, to do something.

She glanced at Grue, and I suspected there was some kind of unspoken agreement there.  She met my eyes, or the opaque yellow lenses that covered my eyes.  “I’ll come.”

“You’re ops,” I said, “I thought the whole point of that was that you’d stay behind the scenes and out of trouble.”

“I’ll come,” she repeated herself.  No argument, no manipulation.  Only the statement.

I sighed.

“Me too,” Rachel said.

“Not sure that’s a good idea,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe someone more subtle?”

“No,” I said.  “It’s fine.”

Subtlety wasn’t what I had in mind.

Bentley crashed into the side of the PRT van.  The vehicle rocked, but it was set up to be in the field amid villains with superstrength and literally earth-shattering powers.  It didn’t tip over.

Two more dogs crashed into the side of it, and the thing fell.  The PRT officer in body armor fell from the turret at the top, his armor absorbing just enough of the impact that he wasn’t badly hurt.

The containment foam sprayers might have been an issue, but none of the uniforms were in a position to use the stuff.  I’d come prepared, and each sprayer was either thoroughly snagged on spider silk at the top of the equipped trucks, or the PRT agents who were wearing the portable tanks were bound, blind and under siege by massed bugs.

Dovetail flew after Atlas and I, a trail of luminous slivers of light falling in her wake.  She was good at maneuvering in such a way that the sparks didn’t fall on the PRT uniforms and heroes below, even with my swarm crawling over her head, shoulders and arms.  Where the slivers touched something solid, they ballooned out into what Tattletale had described as soft force fields, encasing the subject.  Anyone could push hard enough against the force fields to break them, even with multiple fields layered over one another, but it impeded movement, and she could hover over a target to keep reinforcing the forcefields until the victim could be smothered in more permanent containment foam.

It might have been a crummy power, but she was fast.  If she could have thrown the forcefield-generating slivers further than she did when she flung her arms out, she might have had us.

It was to my advantage that it was easier to dodge pursuit than to match someone else’s course exactly.

Didn’t hurt that she had bugs in her nose, ears and mouth, and that she was being bound by silk, limiting her range of movement with every passing second.  She was already unable to use the compact containment foam sprayer she had built into her costume.  Nothing I did would stop her from flying, but so long as she was blind and unable to use her arms, I didn’t see her being too much of a threat.

She wasn’t making headway on the offense, but retreating wouldn’t change her circumstances.  I’d still bind her in silk, blind and choke her.  Her costume had a flared collar, and my bugs were crawling inside, between skin and cloth.  That attack was as much about the psychological effect as about getting to more skin to inflict bites.

I wasn’t sure if it was just me, but her movements were bordering on the frantic, now.

No holding back.  I only had so many wasps and hornets, but I did what I could.  Mosquitoes were a good one.  Welts.  Leaving a mark.

Rachel’s dogs knocked over another one of the vans that had been circled around the PRT headquarters. The van was knocked into the side of the building, bending the bars that were supposed to protect the windows.  Each window cracked, with the lines spiderwebbing out between the hexagonal sections, but they didn’t break.

Adamant got into close quarters combat with the dog, slashing at it with pieces of his armor and driving the animal back.

Rachel whistled, shrill, and two dogs tackled him.  He delivered one good swipe before the other blindsided him.  The disadvantage of forming a full covering of armor was that it limited his peripheral vision.

She wasn’t going even two seconds without giving a command.  There were five dogs in the field, or four dogs and one young wolf, and many were lacking in serious training, so she managed them with lengths of chain between their collars and Bentley’s, and by giving enough commands that they wouldn’t have time to get creative and go after one of the PRT uniforms.

Sere was indoors, along with Triumph.  Binding Sere had been a first priority, and I’d achieved it in much the same way.  He’d done what he could to target the bugs managing the threads, and to disentangle himself, but time spent on that was time he wasn’t moving outdoors and shooting me or one of the dogs.  As with Dovetail, I’d managed to make enough progress that he was more or less out of the fight.  She was blind, he was immobile.

The other heroes would be arriving soon.  I double-checked Dovetail wasn’t in a position to give pursuit, then ventured inside, entering through an open window on the uppermost floor.

I felt calm, which was odd, given the scene.  Bugs swarmed every employee, from the official heroes to the kids who might have been interns.  Some howled in pain, others screamed more out of fear, or yelped as bugs periodically bit them.

The bugs gave me a sense of the route I needed to take, my destination.  There were offices in the back corner, but I had a sense of where I was going.  I’d been here before, when Piggot had been director.

I saw the labels on the door.  Commissioner.  Deputy Director.  Director.

I opened the last door.  Director Tagg.

He held a gun, but he didn’t point it my way.  There was a woman behind him, using him as a shield.

I’d had statements ready, angry remarks, any number of things I could have said to him, to punctuate what my swarm was doing to his assembled employees.  Statements, maybe, that could have surprised him, woken him up to what he’d done to me.

Then I saw the steel in his eyes, the sheer confidence with which he stood in front of the woman… they had matching wedding bands.  His wife.  I knew in an instant that there wouldn’t be any satisfaction to be had that way.

Rather, the word that left my mouth was a quiet, “Why?”

His eyes studied me, as though he were making an assessment.  His words were gruff, the gravelly burr of a long time smoker.  He very deliberately set the gun down on the desk, then replied, “You’re the enemy.”

I paused, then pulled off my mask.  I was sweating lightly, and my hair was damp around the hairline.  The world was tinted slightly blue in a contrast to the coloring of my lenses.  “It’s not that simple.”

“Has to be.  The ones at the top handle the compromising.  They assess where the boundaries need to be broken down, which threats are grave enough.  My job is to get the criminals off the streets and out of the cities.”

“By starting fights in schools.”

“Didn’t know it was a school until the capes were already landing,” he replied.  “Had to choose, either we let you go, and you were keeping an eye out for trouble from then on, or we push the advantage.”

“Putting kids at risk?”

“Dragon and Defiant both assured me you wouldn’t risk the students.”

I sighed.  Probably right.

Someone behind me screamed as a group of my hornets flew to him to deliver a series of bites across his face.

“Barbaric,” Director Tagg said.

“Inflicting pain isn’t the point.”

“Seem to be doing a good job of it,” he commented.

“There are heroes on their way back from patrol, your guys called them in.  But there’s also news teams on the way here.  We called those guys in.  They’ll find your employees covered in welts, every PRT van damaged or trashed.  Your employees won’t be able to get any cars out of the parking lot, so they’ll have to walk, which will make for some photo opportunities.  A handful of heroes will be a bit the worse for wear.  You can try running damage control, but some of it’s bound to hit the news.”

“Uh huh,” he said.

“I couldn’t let you get off without a response from us.”

“Didn’t expect you to.”

“This was as mild as I could go,” I said.  “I think you know that.  I’m not looking to one-up you or perpetuate a feud.  I’m doing what I have to, part of the game.”

“Game?  Little girl, this is a war.”  His voice took on a hard edge.

I stopped to contemplate that.  Rachel was destroying the last containment van, and Tattletale was saying something to her about incoming heroes.  I was low on time.

“If it is a war, my side’s winning,” I said.

“And the world’s worse off for it.  You can’t win forever,” he said.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He must have sensed he had some leverage there.  “All of this goes someplace.  Do you really see yourself making it five more years without being killed or put in prison?”

“I haven’t really thought about it.”

“I have.  Bad publicity fades with time.  So do welts and scabs.  Five or ten years from now, provided the world makes it that long, nobody will remember anything except the fact that we fought back.  Good publicity will overwrite the bad, carefully chosen words and some favors called in with people in the media will help whitewash any of our mistakes.  We’re an institution.”

“So you think you automatically win?  Or you’re guaranteed to win in the long run?”

“No.  They didn’t pick me to head this city’s PRT division because I’m a winner, Ms. Taylor.  They picked me because I’m a scrapper.  I’m a survivor.  I’m the type that’s content to get the shit kicked out of me, so long as I give the other guy a bloody nose.  I’m a stubborn motherfucker, I won’t be intimidated, and I won’t give up.  The last few Directors in Brockton Bay met a bad end, but I’m here to stay.”

“You hope.”

“I know.  You want to fight this system?  I’ll make sure it fights back.”

“So you want to escalate this?  Despite what I said before?”

“Not my style.  I’m thinking more about pressure.  I could pull your dad in for questioning every time you pull something, for example.  Doesn’t matter where, doesn’t matter who it’s directed at.  You or your team do anything that gets an iota of attention, I drag the man into the building, and grill him for a few hours at a time.”

I felt a knot in my stomach.  “That’s harassment.”

I was aware of Tattletale approaching me from behind.  She leaned against the doorframe, arms folded.

“It’s a war of attrition,” Tagg said.  “I’ll find the cracks, I’ll wear down and break each of you.  If you’re lucky, then five years from now they’ll remember your names, speaking them in the same breath as they talk about the kid villains who were dumb enough to think they could keep a city for themselves.”

“He’s playing you,” Tattletale murmured.  “He knows he’s got you on a bad day.  Best to just walk away.  Remember, the Protectorate hasn’t had a good day against us yet.”

I thought about asking him about Dinah, but there wasn’t a point.  It was something he could use against me, and I already knew the answer.

I approached the desk and turned around the photo frames.  The second showed Tagg with his wife and two young women.  A family portrait.

“You have daughters,” I said.

“Two, going to universities halfway across the world.”

“And you don’t feel an iota of remorse for hurting a father through his daughter?”

“Not one,” he replied, staring me in the eye.  “I look at you, and I don’t see a kid, I don’t see a misunderstood hero, a girl, a daughter or any of that.  You’re a thug, Taylor Hebert.”

A thug.

His mindset was all ‘us versus them’.  Good guys versus the bad.

It wasn’t much, but it served to confirm the conclusion I’d already come to.  Dinah had volunteered the information.  Whatever else Director Tagg was, he wasn’t the type to abuse a girl who’d been through what Dinah had.

“We should go,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel’s downstairs with all her dogs, we can run before the reinforcements collapse in on us.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Nearly done.  You, back there.  Are you Mrs. Tagg?”

The woman stepped a little to one side, out from behind her husband.  “I am.”

“Visiting him for the night?”

“Brought him and his men donuts and coffee.  They’ve been working hard.”

“Okay,” I said.  “And you stand by your husband?  You buy this rhetoric?”

She set her jaw.  “Yes.  Absolutely.”

I didn’t waste an instant.  Every spare bug I had flowed into the room, leaving Director Tagg untouched, while the bugs flowed over the woman en masse.  She screamed.

He reached for his gun on the desk, and I pulled my hand back.  The thread that I’d tied between the trigger guard and my finger yanked the weapon to me.  I stopped it from falling off the desk by putting my hand on top of the weapon.

Tagg was already reaching for a revolver at his ankle.

“Stop,” I said.

He did.  Slowly, he straightened.

“I’m illustrating a point,” I said.

My bugs drifted away from Mrs. Tagg.  She was uninjured, without a welt or blemish.  She backed into the corner as the bugs loomed between her and her husband.

“Not sure why.  Doesn’t change my mind in the slightest,” Tagg said.

I didn’t respond.  The swarm shifted locations and dogpiled him.  Stubborn as he professed to be, he started screaming quickly enough.

I picked up the gun from the edge of the desk, joining Tattletale.  We marched for the exit together, moving at a speed between a walk and a jog, passing by twenty or so PRT employees, each covered in bugs, roaring and squealing their pain and fear to the world as they stumbled blindly and thrashed in futile attempts to fight the bugs off.

Nothing venomous, the wasps and hornets weren’t contracting their bodies to squeeze the venom sacs.  There was nothing that could put their lives at risk.  It was still dramatic enough.

“He’s right,” Tattletale commented.

“About?”

“You won’t change his mind with a gesture like that.  Sparing his wife.”

“Okay,” I replied.  I opened a drawer and put Director Tagg’s service weapon inside, while Atlas ferried Tattletale down to the ground floor.

Atlas returned to me, and I took to the air, flying just above Lisa and Rachel and the dogs as we fled the scene.  I made a point of leaving every single bug inside the PRT headquarters, to infest it until they had the place exterminated, which would only be another photo opportunity for the media, or to serve as a perpetual reminder as it took weeks and months for all of the bugs to be cleared out.

The news teams were already arriving on the scene.  No doubt there was a camera following us.  I remembered Director Tagg’s threat, to bring my father into custody.  Only a threat, going by his wording, but it did make me think about how every activity, every thing I did that brought me into the public consciousness, it would be a little twist of the knife that I’d planted in my dad’s back.

Not a good feeling.

Maybe the little demonstration I’d done with Tagg’s wife hadn’t been for him.  It could just as easily have been me trying to prove something to myself.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.4

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

We had to take the elevator in two trips, due to the size of our group, and that meant splitting us up.  The heroes were too wary to leave any number of us unsupervised, whether it was on the ground floor or upstairs.

I entered the elevator in the company of Parian, Regent, Bitch, Bastard and Bentley, Miss Militia, Weld, Clockblocker, and Triumph.  It seemed to be an advanced design, the elevator offering so smooth a ride that I might not have been able to tell it was in motion if it weren’t for the bugs elsewhere in the building.

We exited at the third floor.  I could use the bugs that had gathered near the waste bins or in the walls to try to get a sense of who and what was around me.  I recognized the area as the site where I’d entered via Trickster’s teleportation: desks, cubicles, computers and paperwork.  I could sense some people heading into back rooms to rouse people who were sleeping in the office, on benches and in chairs.  All of the officers and out-of-uniform PRT operatives were gathering to look.

One of them stepped forward from the rest of the crowd.

“Deputy director,” Miss Militia said, standing straighter.

“I’m too cynical to think this is an arrest, or to hope that it’s anything more than another ruse,” the Deputy Director said.  “And I can’t help but note these villains aren’t in restraints.”

“It’s not an arrest, and I hope it’s a trick,” Miss Militia replied.

“You hope it’s a trick?” the Deputy Director asked.

“Because I like the truth even less.  A new class S-threat.”

Every officer in the room reacted, a general murmur punctuated with swearing and exclamations.

“Who?”

“An unknown.  Possibly a fourth Endbringer, not yet fully grown.  I’d like to get in contact with PRT thinkers to verify.”

“Waites,” the Deputy Director called out, over the noise from the gathered police,  “Doyon.  Get on the phone.  Patch them through to me as soon as you get hold of someone.”

“We should wake people up,” Miss Militia said.  She glanced at the nearest clock, “It’s four twenty-four in the morning.  If this is real, we’ll want the heaviest hitters ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.  There’s a chance this may be our one chance to kill her.”

“You’re killing her?” I asked, quiet.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “Nothing’s set in stone.  But there’s a chance it may be our only opportunity and our only option.  If we’re going to do it, I want to do it successfully.”

“No word from Director Calvert?” the Deputy Director asked.

One of the guys in plainclothes spoke up, “He’s gone silent, sir.”

I didn’t miss the fact that nearly a third of the local officers glanced my way.  We were apparently the prime suspects.  Which wasn’t wrong, per se.

The Deputy Director ordered, “Militia, join me in the Director’s office.  Triumph, see to it that the villains are detained and separated.  Interview rooms one and two for Regent and Skitter.  Conference room for Hellhound.”

I could sense Rachel shifting position.

“If I may make a suggestion, sir,” Miss Militia cut in, “I think we should put Skitter in the conference room?  She and Tattletale are our main sources of information.”

“Not complaining,” I said, “But Bitch, or Hellhound if you want to call her that, may be more comfortable in my company.  Her dogs are their normal size.  If she uses her power, you’ll be able to see.  Miss Militia already saw to it I was disarmed.”

“This sounds like you’re positioning people for a maneuver,” the Deputy Director said.

“No.  Just trying to keep things as copacetic as possible,” I said.

“I’d okay it,” Miss Militia said.

“Fine.  Hellhound and Skitter in the conference room-” the Deputy Director paused as the elevator opened with nearly all of Brockton Bay’s remaining parahumans.  “Tattletale to the conference room.  Parian in the legal room.  Grue and Imp in interview room two.  Put police tape and a sign on the door with a notice of Imp’s stranger classification to remind people why it’s shut and staying shut.”

“Hey!”

“Relax, Imp,” Grue said.  “You want to confirm this is alright, Skitter?”

“So long as my teammates go free when trouble starts,” I said.  “But yeah.  I understand the paranoia.”

And I think we could break out if we had to, I thought.  I didn’t say that part.

“This sucks,” Imp commented.

“Suck it up,” Grue responded.  “Come on.”

We split up, with Rachel, Tattletale and I settling in the conference room, at the end furthest from the door.  Triumph stood watch, and the blinds were left open, leaving us visible to the countless officers who were now on their computers and phones.  There wasn’t one of them who wasn’t casting us suspicious glances every minute or so, or peering through the windows of the interview rooms at Regent, Grue and Imp.

I also noted the fact that there were nearly a dozen PRT officers fully suited up in their combat gear, complete with the full-face helmets, the chainmail-mesh covered body armor and containment foam sprayers.  They kept out of the way.  If I was using my eyes and I didn’t have my swarm sense, I wouldn’t have known they were there.

“Sorry, by the way,” I told Triumph.

“The fuck you apologizing for?” Rachel grumbled.  She’d settled into a chair, feet on the table, Bastard curled up in her lap.  One hand dangled, resting on Bentley’s head.

“I attacked his home, remember?  Didn’t know it was him, but Trickster threatened his family.  A fight broke out and I nearly killed Triumph.”

“They know?”  Triumph asked.  “You shared the details already?”

“More or less,” I said.  “Bitch doesn’t care and isn’t the type to use it against you, and Tattletale would have figured it out anyways.”

Tattletale nodded.

“Fuck,” Triumph swore.  “Weld was right.”

“Anyways,” I said, “It… there were better ways to do it.  So I am sorry.”

“Didn’t need doing in the first place,” Triumph said, sighing.  “I was prepared to risk my life the day I graduated from the Wards.  Knew what I’d be getting into.  Week I had clearance, I watched all the video we have of the class S threats.  Leviathan, Simurgh, Behemoth, Slaughterhouse Nine, Nilbog, Sleeper.  I knew what I was getting into.  So I’m not shocked or horrified at the attempt on my life.  What gets me is what you did to my dad.  Set his career back years, if it’s even recoverable, by forcing him to take that stance.  The whole thing, start to finish, was unnecessary.”

“He’ll recover,” Tattletale said, “I’d argue his career was already pretty fucked after the way things went down, here.  Not saying he was to blame, or that he wasn’t, but it’s hard to graduate from mayor to governor when your legacy is a flooded ruin of a city.”

“It’s not that bad,” I said.

Tattletale shrugged, “Not if you’re here, but the photographers and reporters who are getting pictures and video footage of Brockton Bay aren’t going to take pictures of the barely affected areas.  They’re going to get the beaches, the south end and the crater.  Because that’s what sells.  The people outside the city only see the worst bits.  When we’re talking public perception, it’s not what is, it’s the picture that’s painted.”

“And the picture is of a handful of scary and powerful supervillains running a fucked up city,” Triumph said.  “Which is about to get more fucked up if you aren’t pulling our legs.  So yeah, not a good legacy for my dad.”

“We have no reason to pull your leg,” I said.

“Getting access to something else that’s confidential?  Covering your kidnapping of Vista so you’re clear to use Regent’s power on her later?”

“Why would we want her?”  Rachel asked.

“She’s strong.”

“Bitch’s question is a good one,” Tattletale said.  “Yes, Vista’s strong, but why would we want her?  It’d be putting ourselves at risk, for no particular gain.  If we wanted raw power, we’d have kept your cousin.  There’s nothing left in the city that we want or need, so it’s not like we really need her assistance to get a job done.  We have money, we have resources, and anything that’s worth anything is destroyed or taken by now.”

“Then what do you want?” Triumph asked.

“Security.  We have all of the basics.  Shelter, food, warmth, companionship, money.  Anything we do from here on out’s going to involve better securing ourselves where we’re at.  We want to stop visiting villains from getting a footing anywhere in the city unless they’re joining us.  Keep the peace so we keep you guys off our backs.  I wouldn’t mind a system like the Yakuza of Japan’s yesteryear, where we support and involve ourselves in local business, legally, to the point that nobody will be able to shake us.”

“That’s terrifying,” Triumph said.

“Why?  Because we’re bad?  Ooh, spooky,” Tattletale waggled her fingers at him.  “If we do it right, we won’t have to extort anything from the locals.  We can do more to stop the drug trade than any of your guys.  Then we disappear into the background, make enough money off the side benefits of our powers and investments to live a life of comfort.  Mobilize only if and when there’s a new threat.  Build trust with you guys, ensure that any new parahumans go to either your group, go to ours, or they get dealt with some other way.  Ensure that anyone like Hellhound who needs more elbow room or freedom is somewhere they’re comfortable, where they won’t do any real harm.”

“And she’s okay with that?” Triumph asked,  “Being benched?”

“Give me my dogs, don’t bother me, don’t get in my face, I’m okay with whatever,” Rachel said.  Her arm was moving.  It took me a second to realize she was scratching Bastard.

“Calmer than you were a week and a half ago, if that’s the case,” Triumph said.

“Dunno,” Rachel replied.  “That was then.  This is now.”

Triumph sighed.

Weld and Clockblocker joined us.  Clockblocker handed Triumph a can of coke or something like it.

“They behaving?” Clockblocker asked.

“Pretty much.  Tattletale mentioned Dinah, but it wasn’t to fuck with me.  We were talking about their master plan, if you can call it that.  Not much else.”

Clockblocker looked at me.  “Skitter and I had a discussion on the way over.”

“And you won’t have another,” Miss Militia cut in.  She’d stepped out of the Director’s office next door and into the doorway.  “We’re not here to socialize.  We got in touch with some thinkers.  Eleventh Hour says he gets an ‘eight’.  Appraiser’s read says we’re ‘purple’.  Rule for any pre-situ call is we get three points of reference,  going by thinkers alone, that means a third thinker.  The first they were able to get in touch with was Hunch.  Your old teammate, Weld.”

“Didn’t think he rated, yet,” Weld said.

“Chief Director Costa-Brown gave the a-ok, and Hunch says it’s bad.  All together, we’re calling this a threat level A.”

“No shit.  The Undersiders are for real?”  Triumph asked.

Tattletale didn’t wait for him to get an answer, “That’s threat level S.  S-class.”

“The Chief Director of the PRT determined it was an A-class threat.”

“Bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “S-class.  I know Appraiser offered a purple-velvet diagnosis for his previous ratings on Endbringer attacks, so that’s not the reason it’s so low.  Eleven’s score of eight has to be above the seventy-five percent mark, and an answer as vague as Hunch’s is going to be a seventy-five percent exact, as per section nine-seven-six, article seventy-one.  That’s three values that have to be above the threshold for declaring a threat level S situation.”

“How the hell do you know all that?” Weld asked.

Tattletale waved him off.

“The Chief Director made the call.  We’re standing by it,” Miss Militia said.

“We’re talking class-S, even if you ignore pre-situation verification.  Section nine-seven-five, article fifty-seven.  Classifying high level duplicators and villains who operate to any exponential degree.  Nilbog and Simurgh both count, and Noelle does too.  If the powers generate more instances of power generation or recurring effect in an epidemic pattern…”

“She’s not a self duplicator,” Miss Militia said, “And yes, she’s creating powers, but they’re copies of other people’s powers.  They’re not exponential or self-recursive in effect.”

“You’re splitting hairs.”

“And,” Miss Militia said, “She doesn’t create more powers on her own.  She has an intrinsic requirement of needing contact and time to absorb.  She doesn’t meet the criteria as they stand.”

“Still splitting those hairs,” Tattletale said.  “Her threat level zooms up to S as soon as she gets her hands on anyone who can enable something like that.  Like, say, any tinker.”

“I don’t know why we’re even discussing this, when you seem to have our operations manual memorized and you’re capable of realizing it for yourself,” Miss Militia said, “but it doesn’t bear dwelling on.  The difference in our response to a class A crisis and a class S one is minor at best.  Some tertiary protocols change, we won’t necessarily have Alexandria, Legend or Eidolon assisting, and there’s no penalties for anyone who subscribed to the critical situation roster if they sit this one out.”

“Which they will,” Tattletale said.  “You’re ignoring the fact that people are inherently selfish.  It takes something to shake them from that reality, and that’s not common.”

“I think you’re underestimating the inherent goodness of people who dedicate their lives to heroism.  I know for a fact we have ample volunteers already informed on the situation.  They’re en route.”

“If the heroes aren’t showing in full force, others won’t either.” Tattletale said, “And there’s no epidemic protocols with a class-A.”

“We have one tinker,” Miss Militia said.  “Kid Win.  Armsmaster is no longer on the premises.  We have no duplicators.  The risk is one we can control, either through the organization of our forces or turning any combatants with problematic interactions away.  Epidemic protocols are unnecessary.”

“Armsmaster escaped, you mean,” Tattletale said.  “And it won’t be that easy.”

“Maybe not, but that’s the word from above.  I’m not interested in debating this further, Tattletale.” Miss Militia said.  She turned her head slightly toward me, clearly expecting me to comment along the lines of what I’d said in the containment van, about authority tying one’s hands.  When I didn’t rise to the challenge, she said, “We’re having a strategy meeting in a matter of minutes.  The first phase of the response will be teleporting in momentarily, but our best mass-teleporter died in the Leviathan attack, and the process is slow.  I’ll be releasing the rest of the Undersiders to join you soon.”

“As soon as you have enough extra bodies to watch us,” Tattletale commented.

“Yes,” Miss Militia said, terse.  She looked at the three young heroes who had gathered at the wall by the door.  “Be good.  Excuses or no excuses, it looked bad when we had the last incident with a break in the truce.  Don’t let Tattletale provoke you, don’t provoke them.”

“You can’t blame them if they get emotional,” Tattletale sighed.  “It’s only natural, three young men, three young women, a possibility of Capulet-Montague forbidden love between hero and villain…”

“My warning goes for you too, Tattletale.  I already instructed Triumph to shout at the first sign of trouble.”

“I’ll be angelic,” Tattletale said.

“Good.  You should also know that Parian is leaving.  She asked me to tell you, and to let you know she’ll be at her territory.”

Parian was gone?  Shit.

“I wouldn’t have let her go,” I said.  “For a lot of reasons.”

“It’s unfortunate, I agree,” Miss Militia said, “But we’re not in a position to stop her, short of fighting her.  She was adamant about not wanting to participate in this fight.  Flechette is escorting her back.”

“And however Noelle found Vista, she might find Parian and Flechette and target them the same way,” Tattletale said.

“Maybe.  They both have devices to alert us.  In the worst-case scenario, they can inform us if something’s happened.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare.”

Miss Militia didn’t wait for a response.  She was already striding down the hall, gesturing to get someone’s attention.  Someone too small and too young to be a cop.

The three boys at the other end of the long table started talking among themselves.

“This is falling apart before it begins,” Tattletale commented.

“I get the impression Miss Militia’s spooked,” I said.  “She’s tense.”

“Anyone would be,” Tattletale replied.  “Doesn’t help that the last Endbringer fight ended her predecessor’s career.”

I nodded.

“Our muscle’s going to suffer in this fight,” Tattletale said.  “Your bugs, Bitch’s dogs, they can’t hurt her, if she absorbs things on contact.  Not unless we want clones of Bitch’s dogs running rampant.”

“The heroes have long ranged fire,” I replied.  “Kid Win, Miss Militia, Triumph.  So Bitch and I adopt a support role.  The dogs get our key players around the battlefield, if Bitch is willing.”

Rachel grunted something that could have been agreement.

“And I might be able to tie Noelle up without the bugs touching her.  Grue can slow her down, Regent could do the same.” I finished.

“Regent couldn’t use his power against Leviathan.  Can you imagine him getting Leviathan under control?”

“I’d rather not,” I admitted.  “There’s a sweet spot as far as rep goes.  Having a pet Endbringer puts us in the ‘too scary to be allowed to live’ category.”

“We’d have to do what the Slaughterhouse Nine do, win frequently enough against high odds that people can’t afford the losses.”

“Would mean we have to go mobile,” I said.  “So we have time to recuperate while the enemy tries to track us down.  Anyways, enough ‘what if’.  Let’s get back on topic.”

Tattletale nodded.  “Imp?”

“For this coming fight?  Rescue,” I said.  “The enemy won’t target her, they might not target anyone she can get in contact with.  Fallen allies, captives, Imp gets them to safety.”

Tattletale nodded.  The tone of her voice shifted fractionally as she said, “You guys can chime in at any point here.”

The young heroes had stopped talking and were listening in.

“I don’t know what you want us to add,” Clockblocker said.

“Interactions,” I said.  “Maybe we put you on Bentley’s back.  We won’t have to kill Noelle if you can tag her.  We’ll be able to keep her frozen long enough for us to erect some form of containment.”

“Me?  On the dog?”

“You scared?” Rachel asked.

“I think anyone would be a little scared.  You can’t tell me they aren’t a little intimidating.”

“Your power nullifies any threat they could pose,” I said.

“If it closes its teeth around my arm, the fraction of a second it takes my power to kick in is going to buy it time to dig in just a little.  Jaws clamped on my arm, I freeze it, sure, but then every time it unfreezes, it closes a little more before I can freeze it again.  No thank you.”

“He’s scared,” Rachel said.  She scratched the top of Bastard’s head, and I realized she was talking to the wolf cub that was sleeping in her lap.  “You’re the stuff of nightmares.”

Clockblocker snorted, then got caught up in a murmured conversation with Weld and Triumph.  They were facing our way as they talked.

I tried to ignore them, focused on taking deep breaths, controlling the intake so I wouldn’t start coughing and humiliate myself in front of the local heroes.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked.

“Coughing less.  I feel like I’ve maybe got the worst of it out of my lungs and throat.”

“I meant you.  You’ve been quiet.  You weren’t saying as much as you normally might when I was talking to Miss Militia.”

“Thinking.”

“Important you keep doing that,” she said.  “But not if it’s getting you like this.  Unless you’re putting together a master plan.”

I shook my head.  “No plan.  Just fatigue and-”

I stopped.  Each and every officer in the next room was turning their heads.  I used my bugs to feel out the subject.  A hood, with the warmth of a faint natural glow from beneath, with the same effect around his hands, with his loose sleeves.  I noted that a glass helm like the one Clockblocker wore fit over his face beneath the hood.  People went out of their way to clear out of his path, to such an extent that I might have thought they were in front of an elephant and not a man.

Eidolon entered the conference room and grabbed the seat just to the right of the one at the far end of the table.  He swept his cape to one side before he sat down.

“Didn’t think you were coming,” Tattletale said.  “With it being just a Class-A threat.”

“The infamous Undersiders,” Eidolon spoke.  His voice reverberated slightly, an effect similar to Grue’s.

“And the famous Eidolon,” Tattletale retorted, “while we’re doing the reverse-introductions.      I thought I told Miss Militia that we shouldn’t bring in anyone we can’t beat in a fight.”

“Don’t concern yourself over it,” Eidolon said.  “I can render myself immune.”

“We won’t know until it happens,” she replied.

There was a pause.

“Tattletale.  Are you looking for a chink in the armor?”

“You can’t blame me, can you?  If we wind up having to fight you, then it might be all over.  So I’m gathering intel.”

Eidolon didn’t reply.

“Okay, sure.  Fine,” Tattletale raised her hands in surrender.  “It’s cool.”

Eidolon turned away to follow the murmured conversation between Weld, Triumph and Clockblocker.  Tattletale rested her elbows on the table, rubbed at her eyes.

“Tired?” I asked.

“Exhausted.  Been using my power all night, my head’s throbbing, and this whole business with Noelle hasn’t even started.”

“Take a nap,” I suggested.

“No time.  And I do want to make sure I have some ideas in advance, for anyone we might have to face.  Noelle is going to target Eidolon.  If we fight him, we’ll have to use his weaknesses against him.”

“Tattletale,” Eidolon cut Clockblocker off mid-sentence, his voice carrying across the room.  “Could you elaborate?”

“Don’t worry,” she said, “No weaknesses you don’t already know about.”

“Is that so?”

“You’re losing your powers,” she said.  “Not fast enough that it matters today, but enough that the difference is appreciable.”

It was hard to read Eidolon’s body language with the few bugs I’d permitted myself.  He was leaning forward slightly, and his upper arms pressed against the fabric of his costume as he flexed or clenched a fist.

“And how would you know this, if it were true?”

“Because any other day, with you heroes being as short on teleporters as you are, you’d be helping bring people in.  You’re conserving your strength.  It might even be a long term fear, like you’ve only got so much power to use over your lifetime before it’s all spent.  Candle that burns twice as hot, or something.”

“Simple deduction?  Did you consider that I am not teleporting people because there’s a shortage of volunteers?”

“That would contradict what Miss Militia said, and she wasn’t lying.  And it doesn’t fit the overall picture.  Alexandria-”

Eidolon slapped his hand down against the table.  A forcefield expanded from the impact site, forcing Rachel and I out of our chairs and against the wall.  I slumped down to the ground, grabbing my rib, and coughed painfully.

The forcefield had kept Rachel and I out, but Tattletale was inside with Eidolon.  The sounds from within were muffled.

But I had bugs on both Eidolon and Tattletale, and I could almost make out their words.

Tattletale was speaking.  “…reason you … this situation a class-A threat isn’t because it doesn’t fit.  …did it is because Alexandria wanted an excuse not… …  You came because you needed to prove something to yourself.  Test … measure of your power in a …nse situation… work best when… danger.  This is best challenge you’ll have…”

“…treading dangerous waters,” Eidolon spoke.  There was no growl in his voice, no anger, irritation or emotion at all.  Only calm.  It made him easier to understand.

“…can live with danger, … it’s interesting.  Awfully interesting… why Alexandria’s not coming… … me?  …secret.”

Eidolon said something, but his tone had changed and I wasn’t able to switch mental gears fast enough.

“…you?”  Tattletale asked. “Years…-”

“The fuck!?” Rachel snarled.  Bentley growled as if to accompany her words.  He was already growing.

“Relax,” I said, before I started coughing again.  “They aren’t fighting.”

“He knocked me over!”

I could see Miss Militia and Assault at the other end of the room, but the forcefield bubble was blocking us.

“What happened!?” Miss Militia shouted.

I tried to respond, coughed instead.  My voice was weak with the fresh rawness of my throat as I did manage to utter a reply, “Eidolon flipped…”

“Eidolon attacked!” Rachel yelled.

“Did she provoke him?”  Miss Militia asked.  Her gun was raised.

“No,” I managed only a whisper.

The forcefield winked out.  Eidolon was still sitting, he hadn’t moved except to slap the table with his hand, but Tattletale was standing.

“Just wanted to have a private conversation,” Eidolon said.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll be getting some fresh air.”

With that, he stood and strode out of the room.  He made his way to the stairwell and I could track him moving to the roof.

I picked up my chair and sat, still coughing intermittently.  Rachel was still standing, and her dogs were still growing.  I gestured for her to sit.

She just glared across the room.

I gestured again, but the force of the motion made my chest hurt and I started coughing.  Before I recovered, Rachel sat with an audible thud.  She kicked her boot against the edge of the table, hard, and left it there.

“What did you do?” Miss Militia asked.  She was facing Tattletale.  I could see the other Undersiders behind her.

“Was just commenting that it seemed odd he wasn’t helping you guys out with teleporting people in,” Tattletale said.

“You said more than that,” Weld noted.

“I’m tired, he’s tired, we talked it out.  All copacetic,” Tattletale said.  She leaned back and stretched.

“I’m not so sure,” Miss Militia said.  “Skitter, are you alright?”

“Recent injury,” I managed.  “Will be fine in a minute.”

Miss Militia nodded.  Not much sympathy, but I couldn’t blame her.  “Then let’s get things underway.  Everyone, please get seated, or find space to stand.”

Grue, Regent and Imp joined us, and Grue set his hands on my shoulders as he stood behind me.  He rubbed my exposed back where the armor panel was missing as I coughed hoarsely once or twice.

I counted the people in costume with my swarm.  It wasn’t nearly as many reinforcements as we’d had against Leviathan.  I saw Chevalier and Myrddin, but didn’t recognize anyone else.  There were the Wards and Protectorate members from Brockton Bay, with perhaps twenty more.

“Tentative ratings, based on what we know, we have her down as a brute eight, a changer two and a combination of striker and master with a rating of ten.”

“Too low,” I heard Tattletale murmur.

I suppressed a cough, managed only a choke.  It drew more attention to me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was already paying way too much attention.  I was wearing my older costume, and somehow felt more juvenile, more exposed.  I didn’t have the covering of bugs over the exterior of my costume like I was used to, either.

“Her ability allows her to create clones of anyone she touches.  The PRT office believes she’s a class-A threat, but Tattletale’s expectation is that this individual has the potential to become an Endbringer.  We’re moving forward with extreme caution.

“Our primary issue at the moment is that we can’t yet locate her.  She has one hostage, a young member of the Wards.  The girl was attacked en route to her home.  Locating our target quickly is paramount, but we should also be careful to avoid giving her a chance to use her power on us.  For the time being, we will be operating with the same protocols and plans that we employ against Hadhayosh.  Hit and run, maintain a safe distance as priority number one, and employ continuous attacks.  We’ll be dividing you into teams-”

Miss Militia stopped short as an officer pushed his way through the people near the door, Chevalier included.  He handed Miss Militia a phone.

She turned around and pressed a button on the wall.  The faux-wooden panels separated to reveal a widescreen television.

It flickered on.

Her?” Kid Win asked.  “That’s the class-S threat?”

“She’s bigger than she looks,” Tattletale commented.

I was disappointed I couldn’t see.  I tried looking at the screen with my bugs, but they saw only a rectangular glow.

“Quiet,” Miss Militia said, “It’s a webcam feed.  I’m setting it so we’ll be transmitting audio only… Hello, Noelle.”

“Who is this?”  Noelle asked.

“She talks,” I heard someone whisper.

“Miss Militia,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“The gun woman.  Who else is there?”

“Other local heroes,” Miss Militia replied.

“Oh.  There aren’t more?  The Undersiders didn’t get in touch with you?”  Noelle sounded funny.  Her voice was hollow, almost disappointed.

“It’s just us right now.”

“Because I smell more,” Noelle said.  “Which makes it hard to believe you.  But you can lie if you have to.”

“You can smell us.”

“Not you.  But it doesn’t matter,” Noelle’s voice broke.  She stopped.

“Are you there?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’m here.  I was telling you it doesn’t matter.  I only called because… I killed her.  The space-warper.  I’m so bad with the names.  So many names for you capes.  I only ever paid attention to the powers.”

“You killed Vista,” Miss Militia said.  “Why?”

“Because I could.  Because I was hungry, and I’d already used her up.  See?”

There was a brief pause, then a number of gasps and breathless words all at once.  One of my bugs caught a noise from Clockblocker, deep in his throat.

Grue leaned close, whispered in my ear, “Five Vistas.  All but one of them have faces more like masks than skin and muscle.  Hard, rigid.  Wearing borrowed clothes, not costumes.  The fifth one might be taller than I am, and her bones look curved.”

I nodded.

There was a thump from the microphone on Noelle’s end, presumably as she turned the camera back to herself.

“Just wanted to let you know that.  I’m sorry.  This isn’t like me.  It’s the stuff that’s growing on me.  I have my memories, and when I think, it’s always my thoughts, but it feels like it’s taking over my subconscious, and when it wants something the hormones and adrenaline flood into my body and my brain, so I feel what it feels.  Twists the way I think.”

“Why Vista?”

“She was alone.  And could smell how strong she was.  Read about her online, too.  Internet was all I had for a long time.  Now I’ve got them.  They’re pretty obedient, and it’s nice to have company.  I haven’t had any physical contact with anyone for a while, and they like giving me hugs.  Except the sixth.”

“Sixth,” Miss Militia said.

“Not as obedient.  She ran off.  Gibbering something about killing her family.”

Miss Militia thrust her index finger toward the door, and the Wards were gone in a flash, running for the stairwell.

“Can we negotiate?”  Miss Militia asked, her voice oddly calm given the ferocity of the gesture and the threat against one of her colleagues’ family.

“Not really a negotiation… but I can offer you a deal.”

“What’s the deal?”

“Kill the Undersiders.  Or hand them to me so I can torment them before I kill them.  You can do it any time you want to.  Just… knock them out, or hurt them, or find a way to tell me where they are.  If it’s a choice between hurting one of you or hurting one of them, I’ll hurt them.  I promise.  If I’ve taken someone hostage, you probably have a little while before the hostage is dead.  Just know that I’ll trade you any of my hostages for any Undersider, any time, any situation.  When the Undersiders are all dealt with, I’ll sniff out and kill all of the clones I’ve made, then I’ll let you try to kill me.  Or imprison me.  Do whatever.  I don’t care anymore, because I don’t think I’ll be me much longer.  I don’t think I’m even me right now.  Not the me I was… I’m rambling.

“They took away my only chance.  My only chance to get well.  Until they’ve paid for that, I’m going to make this hard on you, heroes.  I don’t think I can die, and I don’t think I’m that easy to stop in other ways.  I’ll hunt you down, I’ll copy you until you’re all used up, let your copies ruin your reputations and your lives, and then I’ll eat you.  I’ll do it to each of you, one by one, until you realize it’s easier to go after the Undersiders than to come after me.  Give me my revenge, and this ends.”

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Queen 18.3

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Miss Militia didn’t respond.  She stared down the length of her gun at Tattletale.  I could believe that if we gave her cause, any of the rest of us were an instant away from getting shot.  We had bulletproof armor, but there wasn’t anything saying she wasn’t using the fanciest armor-piercing rounds.  Her power supplied whatever hardware she wanted.

“We didn’t take Vista,” I told her.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Tattletale said, “We’d take her, do that sort of damage, and then come back?  Approach you guys peacefully?”

“I’m beginning to see why Armsmaster was so frustrated with you, Undersiders.  Every time we run into you, we’re left in the dark, vast amounts of information missing from the overall picture.  There’s always surprises.  So I’m paying very close attention to what you are saying.  Case in point, you say Vista was taken, and not murdered.”

“I don’t think she was killed,” I said.  Tattletale nodded.

“That’s good to know,” Miss Militia said.  She sighed, “When you’re going on the offensive, there’s nothing held back, you don’t pull any punches, short of murder… and you apparently came damn close with Triumph, Skitter.”

Triumph folded his arms.

She continued, “If you’re not trying to kill us, you’re approaching us with open arms, asking for help, putting us in a situation where we can’t accept without breaking our rules, but refusal comes at a cost.”

“It’s that second bit,” Imp said.  Some of the heroes wheeled around to find her standing on the opposite side of her group.  I managed to hide my own surprise.  Imp added, “We’re here because we need help.  This is a nasty one, too.”

Miss Militia turned back to me, and her voice was a little harder.  “I thought so.  It’s your pattern.  Except there’s always information missing.  Information withheld.  You said you were indirectly responsible for this?”

“You caught that,” Tattletale said.  She looked at me.  “Should we dish out the dirt?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have to anyways.”

“Full disclosure,” Tattletale said.  “We were working for Coil.  The Travelers were too.”

Miss Militia didn’t move a centimeter.  Some of the other heroes did.

“He’s dead, in case you weren’t aware,” Tattletale said.  “And the Travelers are a little upset, because they were counting on him to help them out.”

I could imagine Tattletale smiling.  She’s misdirecting them.  They think he died at the debate, but she’s talking about the real death.  The death at my hands.

Miss Militia shook her head.  “I doubt this was the Travelers.  We heard howling, and this wasn’t Genesis.  Analysis of her file by some of our top guys suggests she has limits to the strength of whatever forms she’s chosen.  Strong, yes, but not enough to tear half the wall off the front of a building in the time the witnesses described.  I would, however, believe Hellhound’s dogs could do it.  Besides, Genesis has never been on record shapeshifting to resemble someone or something.”

Never? I thought.  She crafted her bodies in a dream state.  I knew she’d made a body that resembled her real self, but the rest…  Did it take too much effort to get the aesthetic details exactly right, to the point that it cost her in other departments?

“When the Slaughterhouse Nine attacked,” I said, “Do you remember who they targeted?”

“Armsmaster, Regent, Hookwolf, Panacea.  Two more.  With the appearances Mannequin and Burnscar made in the Boardwalk, we belatedly discovered Hellhound was another, and we were theorizing you were the last of them, Skitter.”

“I got in their way too many times,” I said.  “But they didn’t want me.  But the last one was Noelle.”

Her gun shifted a fraction towards me.  I wasn’t sure she was aware she was doing it. “Noelle?”

Tattletale spoke up, “The Travelers have two other members who don’t see much action.  Oliver handles their day-to-day stuff.  Finds and prepares places for them to settle down, gets food, looks after Noelle.  Noelle…”

“New York,” Miss Militia interrupted.  “She’s the one that’s responsible for the disappearance of those forty people?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Tattletale said.

“The reason the Travelers have been operating like they are,” I told Miss Militia, “Going for the quick and easy cash grabs and constantly moving, it’s been for her sake.  Trying to find someone who can help.  They found Coil, or Coil found them, and they thought they had the answer they needed.  Except now Coil’s dead.  Noelle’s snapped, and it’s very possible Vista was her first captive.”

“What does she-” Triumph started.  He stopped as Miss Militia raised one hand.

“You’re good at this, Undersiders,” she said.  “But I do learn my lesson.  I won’t get caught up in your story, I know you’ll have to give me the details, if this situation is as serious as you say.  But let’s postpone that for a minute.  Why don’t you start off by explaining how you’re indirectly responsible for this.”

I turned to Tattletale.  She gave her head a small shake.

“What aren’t you telling us?”  Miss Militia asked.

“Stuff,” Tattletale said.  “Surrounding the circumstances of Coil’s death.  But getting into the particulars would create more problems than it solves, for you guys and for us.”

“I dunno,” Assault said, from behind Miss Militia, “I doubt staying quiet is going to help you much.”

“Did you have something to do with the explosion at the town hall?”  Miss Militia asked, and there was a note of anger in her voice, “The way things went wrong?  The deaths of those reporters, the injuries sustained by the retired Director and the candidates?”

“No,” I said.  “I swear on everything I stand for that I, we, didn’t play any part in planning or setting that in motion.”

“You can understand if we don’t take you at face value on that, nice as it sounds,” Assault said.

“If it helps,” Tattletale said, “Get your hands on the evidence from the scene, some of the blood and bits from the bodies.  Send them out of town.  Discreetly.  Get another lab to run DNA tests.”

“Why?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “It’s pig meat.  Almost all of it.  Glued together with transglutaminase.  Human bone, and human blood, probably, but if you look for it, you’ll find antifreeze.”

“Antifreeze?”

“Glycerol.  It’s how they store it at blood banks.”

“You’re saying it was staged,” Miss Militia said.  “Despite the fact that we had Wards on scene, innumerable witnesses.”

“Despite that.”

Miss Militia straightened a fraction, “And of course, we can’t check it now.  So you’re expecting us to work with you in the meantime, help you with whatever problem you’re suggesting you’re partially to blame for setting in motion, and when the lab tests come in, long after the situation’s resolved, we’ll find you were lying.”

Assault added, “And somehow, conveniently, you come out ahead when all’s said and done.  A handful more of your enemies injured or dead.”  There was a hint of emotion punctuating the end of the statement.  Battery.

“Telling the truth,” Tattletale said.

“This situation’s serious,” I told Miss Militia, “And if you do what we’re suggesting, I can assure you, we don’t wind up in a better position at the end of this.”

“Why’s that?” Miss Militia asked.

It was Grue who answered her, breaking his silence with his deep, eerie voice, “Because we’re recommending you call in the big guns.  Call in everyone.”

“Class S threat,” Tattletale said.  “Or damn near.”

The tip of Miss Militia’s gun wavered as she started to react and then stopped herself.  Neither she nor any of the heroes moved or spoke for long seconds.

When she did speak, she said, “There’s six class S threats active in the world at large.  The Endbringers make up three of them.  The Slaughterhouse Nine as a group are a fourth.  You’re saying this Noelle is on par with one of them?”

“She’s a nascent Endbringer,” I said.

“Bullshit!”  Triumph shouted, not a half second after I’d said it.

“Fuck me,” one of the Wards said.  It was only after he opened his mouth again that I saw it was Weld.  “Please tell me this is another one of Tattletale’s mind-games.”

“Explain.” Miss Militia demanded.

“She’s maybe a nascent Endbringer,” Tattletale said.  “It’s one theory.  Her powers are transforming her, and she’s getting less human, getting tougher and more desperate every day.  Coil was keeping her contained, with heavy vault doors and promises of a fix.  Now she’s free and she’s pissed.”

“And this hypothetical individual has Vista?” Clockblocker asked.

“It’s very likely she has Vista,” Tattletale confirmed.  “Coil’s precog said she wouldn’t cause any real damage until dawn.  That’s… one hour and twenty-nine minutes from now.  I guess this kind of incident doesn’t count as anything serious.”

“You have Coil’s precog in your custody?”  Miss Militia asked.  “Dinah Alcott?”

“I took her home,” I said.  “Her powers are currently disabled, so resist the urge to go to her and ask her for help with this situation.  Everything she’s been through, she deserves some peace.”

“Assault,” Miss Militia said, “Let’s get some confirmation that at least some of what they said is the truth.  Get in touch with the Alcotts.”

“On it,” he said.  He drew a rugged smart phone from his belt and put it to his ear.

“I think it’s time you guys offer the particulars on this ‘Endbringer’,” Miss Militia said.

“She’s as strong as Leviathan, physically,” Tattletale said, “She’s not as tough, based on what I’ve seen.  Have you read the notes on what I told Alexandria after Leviathan’s attack?  About the density of Leviathan’s body?”

Miss Militia nodded.  “Higher density as you penetrate deeper to the core, to the point that it bends the rules of how molecules and atoms should work.  It makes sense.  Armsmaster had a molecule-severing weapon that couldn’t cut through all of Leviathan’s hand, and it explains why nearly all the damage we do is so superficial.”

“Noelle doesn’t have that yet.  I’m not sure if she ever will.  We don’t know if she’s really becoming an Endbringer or not.  What I’ve seen of her was only partial, a camera feed with dim lighting on the other end,” Tattletale said.  “But everything she eats gets added to her biomass, and I think she’ll probably reach a critical point and stop growing, start fortifying what’s already there instead.”

“She’s big?”  Weld asked.

“She’s big,” Tattletale said.  “And if she gets her hands on you, she’ll eat you whole.  Spit you out along with a copy.  Copies with powers like yours.  Stronger, tougher, meaner.  Understand?  When this fight starts, it starts for real.”

“She duplicates people,” Miss Militia stated.

“And the duplicates aren’t on our side,” Tattletale replied.  “You’re going to have to call for backup at some point, it’s just a question of whether you do it before shit goes down or after.  When you do get in touch with the PRT heads and get the a-ok to call a red alert or whatever it is you do, you’re going to want to be very careful about the kind of cape you request, because we might wind up fighting them.”

Assault had finished his phone call and was waiting for Tattletale to finish talking.  Miss Militia turned her attention to him, and he said, “Story checks out.  Kid’s at the hospital, recovering from a long stint of drug abuse.”

“The situation they’re describing is too dangerous to be ignored.  We’ll move forward with this.  Tentative cooperation,” Miss Militia announced.  “In exchange for our trust and our assistance, the Undersiders will give us one hostage.”

“How about me?” Imp offered.  Her tone was light, joking.

“Someone who we can keep track of,” Miss Militia said.  “Rachel Lindt.  Hellhound.  If you’d please step into the van?”

“Fuck that,” Rachel replied.

“That’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Grue said.  I couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

“You, along with Skitter, are problematic due to the sheer amount of damage you could do in the enclosed space of a van.  Tattletale’s more damaging in other ways.  It would help if we knew exactly what her powers were…”  Miss Militia trailed off, inviting a response.

“Not sharing,” Tattletale said.  “And I just had my turn at being a hostage.  Not sharing the details on that either, for the record.”

“Regent’s too dangerous.  We don’t know exactly how long it takes for him to achieve full control, and our records suggest he can regain control instantly.  Even if we assume it takes an hour or more, we can’t trust that we won’t end up in a crisis situation where Regent’s being kept in custody for an extended period and gets the opportunity to use his power on someone.  Not to mention the possibility that he could call Shatterbird to his location.  Separated from her dogs, Rachel Lindt is the least threatening and most vulnerable member of your team.  The optimal hostage, if you will.”

“And she won’t accept being separated from her dogs or being kept in custody,” I said.  “I will.  I can hand you my weapons and send my bugs away.”

“Skitter,” Grue said, “No.”

Miss Militia folded her arms, unconvinced.

I reached over my shoulder, slowly, and unbuckled my utility compartment.  Tattletale grabbed it for me as it came free, and the straps fed out through the rings beneath the shoulder panels.  She handed it to me, and I drove away the bugs I’d gathered inside.  When they were gone, I sent away the bugs that were nestled in the midst of my hair, beneath each of my other armor panels and the ‘skirt’ of my armor, where it covered the scorched leggings of my costume.

“So many fucking bugs,” Clockblocker said.  “They have to weigh as much as she does.”

“No, not as much as you’d think,” I said.  I turned to Miss Militia.  “Satisfied?”

She extended a hand for the concave, spade-shaped piece of armor, her gun turning into a handgun in the meantime.  “Triumph, pat her down.  Everyone else, get ready to mobilize. Assault, you’ll be riding my bike.  I’ll sit in the van.  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, and Kid Win, with me.”

I waited while Triumph roughly pat me down, running his fingers into the folds and crevices of my armor and beneath my belt.  He found the two pieces of paper I’d folded and tucked inside, shook them out as if there might be powder inside, unfolded them, read them, then put them back the way I’d had them.

I felt like saying something to him, but wasn’t sure what.  Sorry for attacking your family and nearly murdering you?  It sounded almost taunting.

Miss Militia led the way to a containment van, and I followed, feeling oddly lightweight.  She opened the back, indicating we should gather inside.

They arranged themselves with Clockblocker and Weld sat to either side of me, Miss Militia, Flechette and Kid Win opposite me.  The door slammed shut as Kid Win got himself seated.

I had only a few bugs in place to get a sense of their positions.  Few enough that I might have lost track of who was who if I wasn’t careful.  Using one of these bugs, I did a minor, peripheral sweep.  They didn’t have weapons pointed my way, but Flechette and Kid Win did have weapons on their laps, a crossbow and laser blaster.

“You’re shorter, looking at you like this,” Clockblocker said.  “Tall for a girl, but… not tall.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“You didn’t get rid of all your bugs,” Clockblocker commented, as the truck started moving.  He was looking in the direction of the patrolling mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

He noticed.

“Not all,” I agreed.

“Why not?”

Because I’m blind, and I’m utterly helpless if you take all the bugs away, I thought.

“Too much of it’s automatic,” I said.  “I got in the habit of using my power to survey the situation, and now it happens even without my thinking about it.”

“Thinker one,” Weld said.  “Because your bugs let you sense things to the point that you might be a short-range clairvoyant.”

“That’s about what the Director said,” I replied.

I heard a click, and bugs moved to the source of the noise to investigate.  Miss Militia had my utility compartment in her lap, and she was holding a handgun.  Mine.

“Only one shot remaining.  Two reasons that might be the case,” she said.  “Saving it for yourself, or it was used and you haven’t reloaded.”

“The latter,” I replied.

“Who have you been shooting?”

Your Director.  “Mannequin.  And shot through some boards so I could break them.”

“Oh?”

“Long story.  I haven’t really thought to reload it.  I don’t use the gun much.”

“Obviously,” she said, but she didn’t elaborate.  “String?”

“Can you leave stuff where it is?”  I asked.

“I’m curious why you have coiled string in your backpack here,” she said.

“It’s a utility compartment, not a backpack.  It’s so I don’t have to have the spiders make it in the middle of a fight.”

“Spider silk,” Kid Win spoke his realization aloud.

Miss Militia continued, “Pepper spray.  Changepurse with… cotton swabs?  I see, it’s to mask the rattle of spare change.  And smelling salts, needles.”

“Please leave everything where it was,” I said, a little firmer.

I’d collected a few bugs on the various objects she’d withdrawn from the interior of the compartment.  I sensed her putting things back, watched to make sure she was putting everything back properly and in the right place.

Clockblocker, though, leaned across the back of the van and picked up the baton.

“You’ve got stuff like this that’s high quality, but then the other stuff’s so mundane,” Clockblocker commented.  “Odd for someone half the nation’s paying attention to.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.  “Not really watching TV these days.”

“You guys took over the city, which is something that’s usually limited to psychos like Nilbog or the third world nations.  I guess with Coil gone, you’re queen of the local underworld.  Or is it Tattletale who’s taken that position?”

“We’re partners.”

“You sound so matter of fact about it,” Clockblocker said.  “You’re not ashamed?  Guilty?  Or proud?”

“Stand down, Clockblocker.  She was gracious enough to be our guest.  Don’t provoke her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“I’m not bothered,” I said.  I’m more annoyed at you picking through my equipment.  “And I don’t feel anything about being in charge.  It is what it is.”

“And you’re not afraid at all, being a hostage?” he asked.

“Should I be?”

“You violated the code by association when you took someone, took control of someone.  The same someone who you saw unmasked.  You violated the code again when you attacked Triumph’s family.  So what’s stopping us from tearing off your mask right now?  The same code you’ve disrespected and broken?”

“Look me in the eye,” I told Clockblocker, turning my head to face him, “And tell me you don’t think Shadow Stalker was a deeply damaged, broken person before we ever got our hands on her.”

He faced me square on, “She was also a hero.”

“She was a hero because the other choice was juvie,” I said.  “In the months leading up to our kidnapping her, she was using real crossbow bolts.  Shooting them at people, Grue included.  If I remember right, she wasn’t supposed to have or be using any lethal ammo, on penalty of jail time.”

“Do you have evidence?” Miss Militia asked.

“Would it matter?  Does it matter?  Judging by what I saw, in my limited interaction with her, she was pretty psychotic.  There’s no way you guys spent all that time with her without something crossing your radar.  The night we took her, I baited her out and she tried to cut my throat.”

“I understand where you’re coming from,” Miss Militia said, “But again, I have to ask for evidence.  I can’t take you at your word, there’s procedures to be followed.”

“Procedures that tie your hands,” I said.

“And they protect us at the same time.”

“If you’re looking for a reason why we’re in charge,” I said, turning towards Clockblocker, “That’d be a good place to start.  You guys knew you had someone bloodthirsty and fucked up working beside you.  You accepted it, probably accommodated her.  Probably cut her slack in other areas, because I doubt she was an angel outside of costume, either.”

I let that sit with them for a moment.

“Yeah,” I said.  I shifted positions on the bench.  “We aren’t limited by oversight and bureaucracy, and we don’t pretend our lunatics are kid-friendly.”

“And without that oversight, you’re free to kidnap people like her and subject her to torture,”  Clockblocker said.

“That’s enough,” Miss Militia said.  She wasn’t quite as sharp as before, but her words were somehow more effective.

We rode on in silence for a few long moments.

“You smell like smoke,” Clockblocker said.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said, “I reserve every right to adjust your patrol schedule if you won’t stop engaging Skitter.”

“I’m really okay,” I told her, keeping calm.  If I’m ever going to shake the idea of Skitter being this unpredictable, dangerous felon, it’s now.  “I’m not going to flip out and hurt someone because I don’t like what they’re saying.  When I said I shot some boards, it was to escape a burning building.”

“Coil wasn’t lying when he said he set your headquarters on fire,” Weld commented.

“He was,” I replied.  “This was something different.”

“Fuck it, give me shit patrols,” Clockblocker said.  “I’m not going to just sit by and obey orders, when I have a chance to get answers.”

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said the name in a warning tone.

“That’s the kind of attitude I’m talking about,” I muttered.  “Recognizing when the bureaucracy is hindering more than helping, pushing against it.  I can respect that.”

“Don’t compare me to you,” Clockblocker said.

“Okay,” I said, smiling a little behind my mask, “I won’t.”

“I’m wondering how the fuck you can justify doing any of the shit you’ve pulled and act high and mighty.”

“I won’t deny I’ve done stuff,” I said, “But I somehow doubt it’s the same stuff you’re thinking about.  But I had reasons for everything I did.  If you want to tell me what you think I’ve done, I can try my hand at explaining myself.  Provided you’re willing to hear me out.”

“Clockblocker,” Kid Win said, “Listen to Miss Militia.  This is the kind of stuff that goes on your record.”

Clockblocker shook his head.  “Fuck my record.  Let’s start with the takeover.  Justify that.”

“It put me in a position to help people.  Visit my territory.  People there are healthier, happier, safer, because of what I’ve done.”

“Except the ones Mannequin and Burnscar killed.”

I didn’t have a ready reply to that.

“No comment?”

“I tried,” I said.  “I did what I could to help the people in my territory.  Maybe my being there did more harm than good.  I don’t know.  But I tried to help.”

“Let’s call that one a draw, then.  What about how things turned out with Panacea and Glory Girl?”

“I already quizzed her on this,” Flechette said.

“I want to hear it from her myself.”

“That was Jack, not me,” I said.  Flechette nodded, snorted just loud enough that she knew I’d hear it.  It was very ‘I thought she’d say that’.

“But you were one of the last people seen with Glory Girl.  You were sighted in Panacea’s company,” Clockblocker said.

“I tried to help her.  Talk to her.  We invited her to join the Undersiders, because she was in a bad headspace, she needed other perspectives beyond her own.  But she finished giving Glory Girl medical care after Crawler’s spittle had burned through half her body, she refused our offers to help and refused Tattletale’s suggestion that she fix what she’d already done to Glory Girl’s head… Tattletale knows the full story there, though I have suspicions.  The next time I saw her, she was talking to Jack, and he was getting to her, fucking with her head.  Stuff happened, I went after him, and it was the last time I saw her.”

“She had a freak-out, you know,” Clockblocker said.  “She was in a bad headspace, sure, but she was a good person.  Healed people I really care about when she didn’t have to.  That’s why I’m pressing you on this stuff, no matter what Miss Militia might put on my record or do to my patrol schedule.  Because Amy deserves to have someone stand up for her, in her absence.”

“I’m sorry she freaked, but it wasn’t my fault.”

“It was bad.  She took Glory Girl with her, you know.  When Gallant died, Vista saw the body.  When Aegis was mashed to a literal pulp by Leviathan, to the point that he couldn’t function anymore, when he died, despite his power?  I got to see the remains to verify for myself.  But Victoria Dallon was still alive and they didn’t let us see.  A select few adults and family members got to see her, they carted her off to a parahuman asylum and none of the rest of us got to say goodbye, because the end result was that fucked up.”

“I didn’t know, I’m sorry,” I said.  “But that wasn’t my fault.”

“Fine.  I’ll concede a point for you, then.  You tried, maybe.  One-naught.  What about Battery?”

“I was with Jack and Bonesaw, affected by the miasma, thought they were my friends.  Battery was giving chase.  Around the time I figured out what was happening, she got attacked by the mechanical spiders.  She was fine when I left her.”

“Assault blames you.  Probably why Miss Militia didn’t have him riding in the van with us.”

“Okay.  If I’d been in a better headspace, I would have backed her up.  But there was the possibility Jack would get away, and the miasma-”

“It fucked with all of us.  Fine.  Let’s call that another draw.  Can’t judge you either way with that stuff in play.  Triumph?  His family?”

“Didn’t know he was Triumph until we were in the thick of it,” I said,  “But I did it for Dinah.  It doesn’t excuse it, but I did it for her.”

“How’s that work?”

“To get into a position where I could free her, I had to get close to Coil.  He’d already clued into the fact that I was planning on betraying him if he didn’t let her go, put the screws to me, basically.  Forced me to do what I normally wouldn’t.”

“It had nothing to do with keeping control of the city?”

I hesitated.  “I didn’t say that.  I could try to justify it, explain how I really felt like I was doing more good than harm and what all that meant, but it would take too long, cover too many details I’m not willing to share, and I’m not a hundred percent convinced I’d buy it myself.  I’ll concede that one to you.  Not in a position to defend or explain it.”

“One-all, then.  Let’s talk Shadow Stalker.”

“We’re back to that?”  I asked.

“She was an asshole, dangerous, didn’t even like her, but she was still a teammate of mine.  Some of your teammates might fall into that camp, so maybe you know how I feel.”

“Maybe.  But like I said, we weren’t holding ourselves up as paragons of virtue.  You guys were.”

“Our focus right now is you.  You, who drove Shadow Stalker into a corner, to the point where she flipped out on her mom and tried to hang herself with an electrical cord.”

What?

“…I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said.

“Do you feel bad about it?  I’m genuinely curious.”

“I feel… less bad than I should,” I said.  “But yeah.  It isn’t nice to hear.”

“Because of what happened, because she was still reeling from the time she spent as your meat puppet, she attacked her mom, who called the authorities.  They caught up just in time to catch her in her room, electrical cord around her neck.  Cost Shadow Stalker her probation, meaning she got stuck in some parahuman detention center until she’s eighteen.  And word is her mom doesn’t want her back when she’s finished the three-year sentence.  Last straw and everything.  Her life, put on hold, her family shattered.  Maybe she was damaged like you said, but you took her captive and tormented her until she went off the deep end.”

“I’m not happy she was pushed that far,” I said, “That’s ugly.  You’re right.  But getting her off the streets?  Yeah.  That’s worth it, at least.”

“What I don’t get is… why?  Was the data from that computer really so important?”

“Coil needed it, and I needed Coil happy.  Either he’d like my work enough to free her on my request or he’d trust me enough that I could catch him off guard and help her escape some other way.”

“I’m sure Dinah would be thrilled to hear that,” Clockblocker said.  “Some other girl’s life ruined for her sake.  How does a supervillain warlord react to that sort of news, by the way?  Finding out a heroine tried to hang herself?  Do you sit in your swivel chair, stroking your tarantula and pull off your best maniacal laugh?  One more enemy out of the way?”

“I didn’t know,” I said.  “Not until you told me what happened to her.”

“That seems to be a recurring theme,” he commented.  “You do stuff, you have reasons, like your apparent feeling that, oh, it’s okay because she was a violent personality, but you don’t pay attention to the ending, to everything that comes after.  A whole lot of people have been screwed up and hurt in your wake, Skitter.”

“I react like you see me reacting.  I don’t enjoy it.  No maniacal laughing here.”

“But you plan to continue doing what you’re doing.”

“I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing in the future,” I said.  “Aside from stopping Noelle.”

“That’s a good point to end this particular discussion,” Miss Militia cut in.  “I will be adjusting your patrol route and noting this minor infraction on your record, Clockblocker.  I hope you’re more or less satisfied with this discussion.”

“More or less,” Clockblocker said, handing the combat baton to Miss Militia.  “Unless our local Supervillainess-in-chief wants to pursue further debate.  I think I was ahead by one.  Two-one.”

“No, that’s fine,” I said.  I left it at that.  No, I’m not entirely sure I want to hear the full details on any of the other stuff.  Quit while I’m only a little behind.

If he knew me a little better, I wondered just how targeted those questions could get.

I’d killed a man, and I still didn’t feel bad about it.  I didn’t feel anything in particular when I thought about it.

In a way, I’d taken the perspective that I didn’t feel bad about it because it wasn’t wrong.  He was a bad person, irredeemable, and it had been the only option.

Except now Clockblocker’s words and his tone were resonating within me, and I was left just a little less confident about the conclusions I’d come to, in terms of the stuff we’d discussed and all the little events that had added up over time.  I’d made peace with who I was and who I was becoming in part because my peers were limited to other villains and civilians who I could dismiss because they didn’t have the full perspective of life on the battlefield.  My dad was among those civilians, it almost pained me to admit.

I wasn’t entirely certain I felt so peaceful now.  Most things, I couldn’t imagine I’d really do them differently, given the circumstances and the knowledge I’d had at the time, but the decisions weren’t sitting quite so easily as they had been.

It was several minutes before the van stopped.  Assault was the one who opened the door, and Clockblocker held the front door of the PRT offices open for me, in a very ironic manner.  My team was already waiting in the lobby.

I’d entered once as a prisoner and thief, once as an invader and kidnapper.  It was an eerie thing to be entering as ally to the good guys, when I’d never felt further from being one.

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Colony 15.8

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The benefit of using my swarm-clone to communicate with Parian was that I had relative privacy to talk to Coil.  He picked up on the fourth ring.  Not quite so prompt as Tattletale tended to be.

“Skitter.”

“I know you wanted me to use Ms. Cranston instead of calling you, but this is sort of important.”

“I’m listening.”

“I’ve talked with Parian, and we’ve come to a tentative agreement.  She’ll need to talk to other people before making a decision, but I think she’d join our alliance.”

“I see.”

There was a long pause.  I was getting ready to speak and ask if he was still there when he spoke once again.

“What are her terms?”

“She holds territory, she’ll defend it against all comers, but she’s not going to do jobs or do anything criminal.  As far as anyone else is concerned, she’s not a part of our takeover.”

“The implication being that we’re too weak to deal with her.”

“That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

“It’s the conclusion others will come to.”

I felt a swell of frustration and anger, powerful enough that I might have snapped at him if I could have come up with what to say any faster.  I had to remind myself that I was anxious over the hit Coil had put on my head, and I felt betrayed.  I recognized that it was stupid to feel betrayed by Coil when I was actively planning to fight him if he didn’t cooperate on the Dinah front, but I also knew I didn’t tend to handle it well when someone I’d trusted stabbed me in the back.

Not that I’d ever trusted Coil but…

Okay, I wasn’t sure what I was thinking on that front.

I forced myself to calm down before saying, “I’m sure there’s a compromise.  Will you talk to her?”

“I will not risk revealing my identity, no,” Coil said.

Damn him.

“But,” he continued, “I will speak to her through a liason.”

“Thank you.”

“Though this could have been done more smoothly, I do appreciate your hard work.”

This from my would-be murderer.

“It’s not a problem.  Ballistic might be upset if he realizes I went behind his back on this, so maybe if anyone asks, she got spooked and came to you?”

“Perhaps.  I’ll be discreet, in any event.  It wouldn’t do to have friction between your two groups.”

“Right.”

“Speaking of inter-group relations, I believe Trickster is preparing to leave for the mission this evening.  You’ll want to contact him to arrange something.”

I’d been hoping to put this off.  It still felt like yesterday that I was watching my back every moment, waiting for an attack from any corner.  I wasn’t eager to return to that state.

“Okay,” I said.

He hung up without another word.

Parian first.

“I’ve raised the subject with others.  They’ll be in touch.  You should talk to Flechette and decide where you stand before then.”

“A lot of pressure.”

I don’t think you understand real pressure, I thought.  But I didn’t say it out loud.

“Yeah,” my swarm said.  The drones and buzzes that made up the syllables helped mask the lack of real sympathy.  I began working to use silk strands and flying bugs to lift a cell phone into the air.  I thumbed through the keypad and sent a text to Ms. Cranston to inform her about what I was doing.  “I’m flying a phone to you, it’ll be in your hands before you’re out of my territory.  Someone will use it to call you before the end of the day.”

“This is you subtly telling me to leave?”

“I’m in the middle of something, yes.  Thank you for hearing me out.”

“It was the least I could do, after the help you’ve offered my friends and family.”

“Whatever you decide, take care of yourself, Parian.”

“You too.”

I scattered the swarm, then paused to think.

The painkiller was starting to wear off, and I could feel the steady ache in my shoulder.  I still had a dart sticking through the bone.  Brooks had only removed the points on either end.  I could only hope the pain kept me sharp.

I’d hoped to take a break and formulate some strategy, some plan.  I had a few small ideas, but they weren’t broad enough to cover every base.  And there were a lot of bases to cover when someone as well equipped as Coil was after me.

Fuck.

I couldn’t do up all of the armor I’d removed with the one hand, so I enlisted Atlas’ help in putting the armor on my injured shoulder, using his forelimbs to hold things steady.

I took a deep breath.  It wasn’t confirmed one-hundred percent, but I had my suspicions that Parian was on board.  I didn’t want to die, exactly, I was prepared to fight tooth and nail to avoid it, but at the same time I was ready to die, now.

I didn’t really have friends, outside the team.  My teammates would miss me, but they’d recover in time.  Death was a reality in our business.

My dad hadn’t heard from me in some time.  If I died, well, perhaps not as great a shock as it might otherwise be.  I knew it would hit him as hard as my mom’s death had, that he’d be devastated… but again, he’d recover.  Maybe it would be easier, because at least here he’d have someone to blame, the city, the thugs, whoever Lisa told him was at fault for my murder.  I was pretty sure she wouldn’t reveal my identity to him when a simpler, to-the-point explanation would do.

And my people?  My territory?

I felt Parian receive the cell phone, a few blocks away, pulling it to her hand with telekinesis.  From the bugs that lingered on it, I could feel it vibrate pretty violently as it moved the short distance through the air.

If I died, Parian could take over my territory.  I had the feeling I could trust her to care about my people the same way I did, more than I could trust even my friends.  The transition wouldn’t be too difficult.

I took in another deep breath, then sighed.  For Dinah.  In any other circumstance, I’d back down, leave Coil’s employ.  But I was willing to brave this if it meant keeping her and her freedom in my reach.

I dialed Trickster.

Atlas carried me into the nice part of town, southwest of the Towers.  The Christian private school wasn’t far from here.  Immaculata.  New Wave was also based here.  I kind of hoped I didn’t cross paths with them.  If they shared any of Flechette’s opinions about me being at least partially to blame for whatever had happened with Panacea and Glory Girl, well, they’d be even less inclined to hold back.

I needed to find out the story there.  Had to ask Tattletale, when I had a free moment.

The area was riddled with hills and glades, with ridiculously large houses gathered in small neighborhoods.  Brockton Bay tended to zig-zag pretty drastically between the poverty-stricken areas and the wealthy.  The contrast seemed even greater here where things were largely untouched by Leviathan’s attack, compared to the rest of the city where streets sat under inches of water.

I didn’t join Trickster and Genesis.  Instead, I set Atlas down in one of the wooded glades close to my destination, glanced at my phone to ensure I’d followed directions to the right spot, and then got my laptop out to prepare.  I was a little early, which meant I could afford to take the time to prepare.

The range would be lower with the trees and any buildings between me and my destination, but I was still better off using my swarm-clone as a body double.  I double checked my equipment and weapons while I waited for my ‘clones’ to gather together.

Centipedes and bugs chained end-to-end for the hair.  Larger bugs formed the bulk of the legs, torso, and the core of the head.  Smaller bugs filled the gaps, while flying insects clustering together to form the arms and the parts too unwieldy to be supported by the rest, like the face.  Once the basic form was there, it was just a question of refining it so the general silhouette was right, and positioning the miniature camera and microphones so they had eyes and ears I could use.

Once they were ready, I gathered one swarm on top of Atlas and flew it to Trickster and Genesis.  I walked with my swarms at my side, my laptop open and held with my good arm so I could see the video feed.  As I gathered more bugs on top of my costume and in my hair to make myself resemble the clones, I used stray bugs to form similar laptops for the other clones.  They didn’t have glowing screens, but the generally rectangular shapes would serve for anyone looking at a distance.

If ‘I’ was in immediate danger, my clone on Atlas’ back would take the hit.  If my enemy or enemies saw through the ruse and came looking for me, they’d have to pick me apart from my clones.  That meant they would have to take the time to find a telltale clue, they’d have to guess with only a one-in-four chance of hitting the real me or they’d have to spread their attacks out among each of my clones.  I had the additional security of bugs filling the area, sweeping over surfaces and ledges to spot anyone who might be in place to stalk or snipe me, and my costume served as a final line of defense.

Redundancies.  It didn’t feel like enough.

Trickster and Genesis were waiting as Atlas descended.  They were crouched with their backs to a stone wall that bordered one property at the edge of a hill.  Trickster was holding binoculars, gazing down at the neighborhood below us.  Genesis was in the form of a ghostly woman wreathed with chains.  Her white hair was smoky, wispy, and covered her face, and her fingers were talons.  She had no lower body extending from the tattered poncho-style cloak she wore, and simply floated as though she were as light as air.  How had she done that?  Some basic flight mechanism?  A gas balloon in her stomach?

So powerful.

“Welcome.  Have a look,” Trickster said.  He extended one hand with the binoculars.  Binoculars I couldn’t use with my camera.

“Don’t need them.  Which property?”

He pointed.  It took me a second to relate the direction his arm was pointing with the camera angle and relate that to my own position relative to my clone.  I could have figured it out in an instant if I’d put a bug on his hand, but I didn’t want to clue him in if I didn’t have to.

The grounds of the building he was pointing to was nearly as large as the city block where I’d grown up and lived until a couple of months ago.  There was a fence, but it seemed to be directed at keeping the family’s dogs in rather than keeping intruders out.  Chain link, no barbed wire.  I knew he had dogs from the flies that were clustered on the feces in the back yard that hadn’t been picked up, and the larval young that festooned each clump.

Not too many bugs inside the house.  There were some in the walls, but the home seemed relatively new, and the insulation was packed tightly enough that nothing was really living in the walls.

It took me a minute, but I did manage to start a headcount.

“There’s guards?”

“There’s a police presence in this area.  I think they’re expecting trouble,” Trickster said.  “Anyways, the reason we’re here at this time and place is that the mayor always eats dinner with his family.  Tattletale says he’s only missed three meals in twenty years, and that was only because he was out of town for work.  His planned trip to Washington is going to be his fourth time away from home, so this is the one place we can be absolutely sure we’ll cross paths with him.”

I found the dining room and started counting the number of shoes under the table.  “Four adults.  I think two male, two female, judging by the footwear.  Two younger girls. Going by their size, I’d guess between eight and twelve.”

“He has a son and two twin daughters,” Trickster said.

I arranged bugs on the ground by Trickster to sketch out a rough floor plan of the house and show the pair where the family was relative to us.

“How do you want to do this?” Genesis asked.

“We scare the wits out of them, then we’ll introduce ourselves to the mayor,” Trickster said.  “You guys start us off.  I’ll keep an eye out for trouble and handle things if any cops show up or if anyone flees.”

“We’re attacking with their family there?” I asked.

“Sure.  Bigger impact if we threaten them too.”

“Not sure I like that.”

“When I was talking to Coil about what Tattletale said about the schedule, he suggested it.  Unless you want to go against him?”

He was talking to Coil.  I made a mental note of that.  Did I need to watch out for an attack from Trickster?  It would be as simple as swapping the positions of an active grenade with a stone near me.

It was possible.  He was ruthless, he didn’t seem to have many compunctions about killing and he was in the best position to do it.  I couldn’t sense any people who might be Coil’s soldiers.

There was the possibility that I was walking into a trap, that everyone in the house we were about to attack was a threat.  I could handle that much.

Too many potential avenues of attack.  Too many potential threats.  And with the possibility of long-range weapons, Trickster or even a surprise attack by Genesis, it could come at any instant.

“Skitter?”  Genesis asked.

“Hm?  Right.  Um.  I suppose not.  We just scare them, right?  We don’t do any physical harm?”

“Right,” Trickster said.

Well, I could do that.  It wasn’t so different from what I’d done in my first job with the Undersiders.  I’d terrorized hostages then for a greater purpose, and I could do the same with a family for the same reason.

“Just give me a second,” I said.

“I’m going, then,” Genesis said, floating over the edge of the hill.

“Not the first time you’ve needed time to get ready,” Trickster commented to me.

“Hm?”

“Just seems like a drawback.”

Is he threatening me?  Letting me know he’s on to one of my weaknesses?

“I’m a general, and it takes time to mobilize my army.  Better to hit hard with all my forces at once.”

“Not always.  You could have built up to a crescendo there.”

“And give them a chance to scatter?  I’d have to divide the swarm to cut each group of people off, which would mean less bugs for each, smaller effect overall.”

He shook his head.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“You seem just a little more hostile than before,” I said.

“Do I?”

My bugs had gathered around the handful of entry points I’d been able to find.  Windows were open, but each window had been set up with either plywood or screens to compensate for the glass Shatterbird had destroyed.  There was a fan system for the bathrooms that was structured to discourage bugs from crawling through in reverse, with flaps that would presumably only open when the fan was active, and that was easy to bypass with some cooperation of the arthropodic collective.

“Yeah.  Any reason for it?”

“Not a huge fan of you stepping on Ballistic’s toes.  He’s sort of a friend.”

Not the way he tells it.  “I didn’t intend any offense.”

More bugs were entering through one of the doors at the side of the house, which was ajar.  I presumed it was to let the warm late-spring/early-summer air flow through the house.  The challenge there was keeping the bugs from being spotted before I was ready.

When I realized what Genesis was planning, I shifted my bugs to follow.  She headed straight for the kitchen window and crashed through the plywood there.  She was followed shortly after by my swarm, spilling into the room to spread over windows, ceiling and floor, only a small few darting around the people.

They turned to run, naturally, running for the door that led to the kitchen and to the hallway.  They were met by the remainder of my swarm, a thick cloud of flies, dragonflies, moths, roaches and beetles.  I could feel them backing away, four adults, two children.

“Police are on their way.  Gonna swap them with us the second they get to the house.  Warning you in advance so we can look confident.”

Damn.

“Appreciate that line of thinking, but there’s one small problem,” I said.

He looked at me, then frowned.  “I can’t get a grip on you.  You’re doing what you did when you were talking to Legend and Miss Militia.”

“A little more refined than that, but yeah.”

“Fuck,” he said.  Then he groaned. “And now I’ve lost sight of the cops.”

“I can deal with them, if you want.”

“Just find them and I’ll handle that.  Where’s your real body?”

I hesitated.  Then I had my clone turn and point to another clone.  Just in case he decided to go on the attack.

“I see you.  Right.  And the cops?”

“Over there, but don’t teleport me,” I said.  “I’ve got something else in mind, and the visual effect will be stronger.”

“If I don’t teleport you, I have to fight whichever cop I’m not teleporting,” he noted.

Cope, I thought.  I deigned not to respond, and dismantled the clone that was standing next to him.  I did draw an arrow pointing him to where the two officers had circled one corner of the property.

Rather than visit the house myself, I gathered some of the bugs I’d sent to the room and began forming a clone there.  From what I’d seen of the process, it was sort of spooky in its own right.  A person materializing from vermin.  I carried the small camera and microphone towards the swarm, using the video feed to remotely see the clone from a short distance so I could match the finer features and body shape.  When I was done, I added the remaining bugs to the swarm, the camera and microphone hidden in their midst, and shifted the camera into place.

I recognized our mayor.  Never someone I’d paid a whole lot of attention to, given how I wasn’t exactly a voter, but I recognized him in a general way.  His face tended to pop up in advertisements and media.  If the city wasn’t in the state it was in right now, it would be on every TV channel, well into the swing of things for the imminent mayoral elections.  He was fifty or sixty, with horseshoe-pattern baldness on a round head and large ears that sort of stuck out.

The woman next to him would be his wife.  She had the look of someone who had purchased their good looks, with stylish clothes, an expensive haircut and top-notch makeup and skin care.  She was clutching her husband, who was holding his two twin daughters.

There were two young adults there too.  Older teenagers or young twenty-somethings.  The guy looked seriously well-built, the girl statuesque;  I got the vibe of an athlete and his cheerleader girlfriend more than I got the impression of a brother and sister with good genetics.  The guy stood a little in front of his parents and girlfriend, as if he wanted to protect them.  Genesis and I stood on the other side of the dining room table.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“A conversation,” Trickster spoke.  He had hopped up to the ledge of the ground-floor window and was now hopping down, one hand on his hat.  He adjusted it.  “Hello, Mr. Mayor.”

The mayor looked at each of us in turn.  Well, at Trickster and the fake-selves that Genesis and I were producing.  “To what do I owe this questionable pleasure?”

“We hear you’re going to Washington tomorrow.”

I saw the son turn to look over his shoulder at his dad.  I also noted that he was discreetly drawing a phone from his pocket, concealed by the way he’d turned his body.  If I couldn’t sense movements through my bugs, I would have missed it.

I could have said something, but I stayed quiet.  Instead, I drew Atlas to a point near the window and began uncoiling and stretching out the lines of pre-prepared silk I’d already drawn out for emergency use.

“I am.”

“Well, I think it would only be fair if you heard from all of your constituents,” Trickster remarked.  “Before you come to a decision.”

“You pay taxes?” The son asked, shifting his position again so his right hand was hidden behind his girlfriend.  I could feel him adjusting his grip on the phone.  As far as I could tell, he hadn’t actually done anything to it.  I waited for him to stop moving his hand, and then threaded a series of flying bugs between his fingers and the device, winding the thread around it.

“Rory,” the mayor spoke, his tone a warning.  He turned his attention to Trickster.  “And?  Which outcome are you hoping for?”

“I think it would be excellent if the city kept on going.  Things are getting better.”

“And you’re putting yourselves in charge,” the mayor noted.

“We’re just keeping the peace,” Trickster said.  “Doing a better job than your local heroes.”

“If you have a liberal interpretation of ‘peace’, maybe,” the mayor said.

Rory moved his fingers, tapping the screen, and I had Atlas fly away from the window.  The phone was torn from his hand and bounced off of the window pane before landing outside.  Atlas reeled it in further while Rory looked around in confusion and alarm.

“No phone calls,” I spoke, buzzing through my swarm.

“Give that back,” he said.

“Is your phone really a priority?” Trickster asked.

“Yeah,” Rory said.  “Yeah it is.”

“Then you should have known better than to use it here,” Trickster said, shrugging.

Give it back,” Rory turned to glare at ‘me’.  At my swarm-double.

Trickster chuckled, “Never really got that smartphone craze.  People go gaga over the things.”

No, I thought.  Something’s off.

What I wouldn’t give for Tattletale’s power.  Or even to have her present.  How would she pull the pieces together, fill in the blanks?  She could have looked at the big picture here and known exactly what was going on, while I was left to guess.

The obsession over the phone?  I couldn’t draw any conclusions.  What else?  The family dinner with the son bringing his girlfriend over?  Nothing too strange.

They weren’t scared.

The little girls were glaring at us as they clutched their dad, Rory was too focused on his phone when his family was in imminent danger, and Rory’s girlfriend was staying very still.  Topping it off, the mayor was too casual in how he was addressing us.

Ah.

“I think it would be in everyone‘s best interests if Brockton Bay kept going.  Not quite fair to judge the fate of the city at its lowest point,” Trickster said.

“Are you being ironic on purpose?” The mayor asked.  “You’re making a very strong case for why the city shouldn’t continue down the path it’s been going down, just by being here.”

Again, that confidence.  One didn’t trade banter with someone who was implicitly threatening them and their family with bodily harm.  Not if they didn’t have some measure of security their would-be assailants weren’t aware of.

I considered the various possibilities.  Not too hard to narrow down the options, with the process of elimination.

I drew the words against the wall, above and behind the gathered family.

Trickster didn’t seem to notice.  “I’m surprised you aren’t showing us more respect.  You’d think we’d almost be equal on a level, current guy in charge of the city talking to the aspiring rulers.”

“I earned my position through hard work, dedication and by convincing the people that it was in their best interests to vote for me.  Which it was.  You three?  You’re criminals.  Thugs.  You didn’t earn anything.”

Thugs?  Do Thugs take on the Slaughterhouse Nine and walk away?”

“All you have going for you is violence and intimidation.  You can’t accomplish anything but destruction that way.”

I made the words on the wall bigger.  Trickster didn’t see them, or he didn’t care.

“Trickster-” I started, speaking through my swarm.  I need to have a word with you.

“Well,” Trickster said, cutting me off, “If you insist, who am I to argue?”

In an instant, one of the two twin girls was replaced by one of the dining room chairs on our side of the table, and vice versa.  Trickster grabbed her hair and pulled her close, drawing a gun and pressing it to her head.

“Trickster,” Genesis said, in the same second I moved forward to stop him.

Was she trying to stop him as well, or had she seen the words?

She settled one talon on his shoulder.  I wasn’t sure what signal she gave, but Trickster paused.

Whatever it was, he must have looked up at the words I’d written, because Rory noticed.  He whipped his head around to see, and I couldn’t disperse the bugs fast enough.

‘Triumph’ written on the wall with bugs with a triangle beneath, pointing at his head.  Above his ‘girlfriend’ were the words ‘Prism or Ursa’.

The mayor’s son was the civilian identity of Triumph.  Enhanced physical prowess and a concussive shout that could punch holes through concrete.

He whipped his head around and stared at Trickster.  Before the teleporter could pull the trigger or do anything else, Triumph shouted.  His sister was untouched, but Trickster was sent flying into the wall hard enough that he was half-buried in the drywall.

“Duck, Kyla!”

The little girl threw herself to the ground as Triumph lunged forward, kicking the dining room table.  It slid halfway across the room, over ‘Kyla’ and into the wall. The side slammed into Trickster’s midsection, and the table’s contents flew into the villain and the wall around him.  Trickster went limp, his upper body flopping over the table.

I mobilized the swarm, but Triumph was already shouting again, slamming Genesis into a wall, much as he’d done with Trickster.  A third bellow annihilated my swarm-clone, and he turned to start eradicating my spread out bugs while his family ran for the hallway, led by the superheroine.

Couldn’t get a serious number of bugs together in one place to mount a serious attack without Triumph obliterating them and he was either too angry or too stubborn to surrender to the stings and bites I was managing to inflict.  The superheroine had her phone out and I wasn’t able to tug it from her hand like I had with Triumph’s.  They would be getting reinforcements shortly.  Even if I took all of them out of action, I’d still have to get Trickster out of there and escape with my own hide intact.

“Damn it,” I cursed.  I broke into a run, accompanied by my swarm-doubles, hurrying for the house.  I couldn’t leave him there, not without jeopardizing everything.  He struck me as being disloyal enough to offer information for his own sake, or information about the Undersiders, at the very leastAnd leaving him behind would leave a permanent rift between our team and the Travelers.  It could even mean being dropped by Coil, an excuse for him to separate me from my teammates.

That said, I couldn’t save him or mount a serious attack with just my doubles.  He was hitting too hard, handling my bugs too effectively.  I could have killed or critically injured his family with the few bugs I did have, brought them down with the more dangerous insects, but I wasn’t willing to go that far.  Not with people who didn’t deserve it.

Atlas wouldn’t be strong or versatile enough to carry an unconscious body to safety.  If I was going to haul Trickster out of there, it would have to be with my own two hands.

I could only pray I wasn’t exposing myself to whatever assassination ploy Coil had in mind.  Or worse, that I wasn’t doing exactly what he wanted me to do.

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Colony 15.7

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How the hell was I supposed to get medical assistance when the guy I was supposed to ask was looking for a covert way to murder me?

And I did need help.  I was bleeding, for one thing.  It had only started when I’d moved my arm to unstrap my armor.  If I’d known, I would have tried to undo the straps with my bugs.

Worse, the spike had penetrated the bone of my shoulder and any movement of my arm rewarded me with scraping sensations in my shoulder socket that made my skin crawl, not to mention the pain.

I was surprised it didn’t hurt more.  I hoped that wasn’t a bad sign.  My fingers moved without a problem, but the lack of pain could still point to bigger problems.  Pain was a natural response, after all, and the lack of pain was unnatural.

I called Tattletale instead.

“Skitter?” she answered.  “How did it go?”

“Could have gone worse.  I paid Parian off, and she’s leaving the city.  No blood shed, mostly.”

“Mostly?”

“Flechette was there.  I got stabbed.” I remembered that Coil could be listening in.  “I don’t want to bother Coil with it, busy as he is.”

“Being stabbed is serious.”

“It’s not too bad.  Can you lend me your medic?”

“You’re just leaving Dolltown now?”

“Flying home.”

“He should be there before you arrive.  I know you two haven’t gotten along in the past, but he won’t trouble you.”

He won’t trouble me.  Was that her way of informing me that he was safe?  Well, I still felt better than I would be if I were putting my life in Coil’s hands.

My desire to convey the image of someone who was confident, fearless and untouchable had led to me getting impaled in the shoulder.  It was something of a weakness, but I still found myself doing it as I reached my own territory.  I landed Atlas on the beach and made my way into the storm drain, wincing every time my arm moved.  By the time I was inside, however, I was pulling myself straighter, raising my chin and squaring my shoulders.  I tried to focus on my power to remove my attention from my body.  Checking the status of the various cleanup projects, some basic reconstruction, setting up dry and clean sleeping areas, stocking up on food and medical supplies…

Sierra and her little one-handed brother Bryce were there as I stepped into my lair, along with a small cluster of older kids and Tattletale’s medic, Brooks.  I sat down on the stool by the kitchen counter and Brooks started examining my shoulder.

“You guys get the most interesting injuries,” he said, in his characteristic, hard-to-place accent that seemed to put hard emphasis on syllables.

“Interesting?”

“Metal bonded to the bone.  You have some sticking through and into the cavity your socket sits in.  I have no idea how I’m going to get to the far end, cannot pull it out, and if I try sawing it off, I am not sure the shavings and flecks wouldn’t do catastrophic damage over the long run.  I would say you need surgery.”

“Damn it,” I said.  “She probably intended for something like that, and every hospital in the area’s going to be looking for someone with a spike in their shoulder.”

“I could try to handle it, but it’s going to take time to get necessary tools.”

“What tools?”

“At the very minimum, a small rotary grinder, suction, some fine wire, blood…”

“We have those things.”

He looked surprised.

I looked to Sierra, “We did get that delivery of stuff for Dr. Tegeler?”

“The dentist?  Yeah.  But it’s not unpacked.”

I turned to Brooks, “We have rotary grinders that we’ve been using for the cleanup, not sure how clean they’d be.  But the rest of that stuff, we’ve been having it delivered, so the people with medical training can start helping out.  Since we already have an able-bodied dentist, we’ve been setting her up.  It’s kind of surprising how many people will start having issues with their teeth over just a month.”

“Okay.  Let me pack this wound and then I will need to go there.  I’ll grab what I need myself.”

I waited while Brooks unpackaged and pressed bandages in place around the spike.

“How is the pain, on a scale of one to ten?”

“Ten high?  Maybe a three until I move it, then it’s more like a seven.”

“I am surprised you are not passed out already.  Do you have a high pain tolerance?”

“I wouldn’t have thought so.  But maybe.  Or maybe the way it bonded kept it from damaging or exposing nerve endings?”

“Maybe.  Okay.  Ginger girl, show me the stuff?”

Ginger girl?”  Sierra asked, archly.

Brooks smirked.

“Brooks,” I said, “Treat my employees with respect or I’m going to have words with Tattletale about you.”

“Yes.  I am sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all.  “Please show me where I can find the dentist’s equipment.”

Sierra looked at me, and I gave her a nod as my ‘go ahead’.

That left me with the kids and Bryce.  I studied him.  His black hair was cut so short he was nearly bald, and like Brooks he was wearing dark gray cargo pants and a beige sleeveless t-shirt.  He’d put on some muscle since I’d seen him last.  His still-bandaged stump of a wrist tapped impatiently against his leg.

And the kids… they were wearing some of the clothes I’d had shipped in, but they didn’t look like the typical bunch of kids one would see around a schoolyard.  Before taking advantage of what I had to offer, they’d been eating the bare minimum, spending all of their time outdoors.  But diet and exercise weren’t entirely to blame for the lack of softness in their faces or expressions.  They’d seen people they loved die.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  Making small talk seemed like it would lower me to their level.

I used my power to check on progress in the area instead.  I’d had a hand in getting recovery efforts underway and ordering both tools and supplies, so I was fairly in touch with what was going on.  The streets were draining or drained in the areas we’d settled, with sandbags holding back or diverting the flooding.  Crews were filling more sandbags and loading them onto trucks at the beach.  Still others were working to clear the storm drains of blockages where they’d verified that both sides were clear of water and that the storm drains were intact.  The storm drain leading to my base had been classified unsafe for the time being, meaning I wouldn’t find strangers nosing around in there.

Burned buildings were being torn down where there wasn’t any hope of salvaging them, and small crews of people with the necessary skills were working to assess what could be recovered, assigning simple tasks to people who didn’t have the training or know-how.  Massive tarps were going up over roofs and being tied down.

It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t fantastic, but it was something.  My bugs noted a hundred and seventy people at work, one-seventy-four if I included the kids here.

One-eighty-four, I realized I’d nearly missed a crew that was working beneath the streets.  The numbers were growing.

It was a little intimidating.  I didn’t have any particular training or talents that really equipped me for a leadership position.  Now I was in charge of this many people.

Well, I’d do what I could.  Supply what they needed, keep an eye on things.

“Your name?” I asked one of the oldest kids.

“Guy.”

“Sierra didn’t have anything for you to do?”

“We’re waiting until Char comes back,” he said, pronouncing it ‘shar’. “She said she was going to put us in charge of some younger kids, then have us run water out to the people working.”

“Good.  For now, you can run an errand for me.  Head out the door, turn right, go two blocks.  There’ll be an open manhole with a cordon around it.”

“A what?”

“Tape and warning signs.  Ignore the warnings, just go to the manhole cover and shout down at them, tell them to get back to work.  I know they’re just sitting in the dark and drinking.  And tell them no power tools, now.  Not if they’ve got alcohol on their breath.”

“Okay.  If they don’t listen to me?”

“I’ll take care of that,” I told him.

He ran off.

“Big bad supervillain, giving orders to little kids,” Bryce commented.

Why did people insist on testing me?  Was it something about being in charge that demanded that they try to establish their dominance?  Did people like Bryce have a natural propensity for bucking authority, with me as the only clear target?  Or was it more that they were angry in general?

Either way, what did that mean for this city in the long run, if anyone who tried to change things for the better was facing this sort of resistance.

“I’m giving orders to everyone.  Everyone contributes, everyone benefits.”

“To be more specific, you’re having my sister give orders to everyone while you go out and get yourself injured in fights with other capes.”

“Don’t you dare,” Sierra said, stalking back into the room.  She put down a plastic tote of medical supplies.  She sounded angry.  And scared?  “Do not pick a fight with my boss.”

“I’m just saying-”

“Don’t.  Don’t ‘just say’ anything.  If nothing else, she saved your life.”

“I wouldn’t have needed saving if she hadn’t been there,” Bryce said.  He gave me a look that was just short of a glare.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Sierra said.  “You were with the Merchants.”

“And things were cool.  Party all day, relax, had a girlfriend.  If she’d left things alone, I’d be okay.”

“I’m surprised Tattletale didn’t mention it,” I said.  “The Slaughterhouse Nine eradicated the Merchants.  Barely one in twenty survived.  The ones that are left are scattered across the city.  If you’d stayed with them, you’d be dead.”

“She did mention it.  But I would have made it.”

Cocky.  “Then you’d be starving to death, dirty, probably sick.  Going through withdrawal, maybe.  Don’t know what you were taking with them.”

He scowled, glancing at his sister.  “None of your business.”

“Hey!”  Sierra raised her voice.  She grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, and he slapped her hand away.  She stabbed a finger into his chest, “Treat her with respect, damn it!”

Again, that note of fear.

“I treat people with respect if they deserve it.”

“She does.  She’s saved us, here.  That’s big.”

“Wouldn’t need saving if it wasn’t for the people with powers being around here in the first place.”

He wasn’t wrong.  As validating as it was for Sierra to stick up for me, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt at the idea that these circumstances were because of capes.  Hell, if I hadn’t provoked the Nine by humiliating Mannequin then this district wouldn’t have come under fire by Burnscar.  There was Dolltown too, and my complicity there.  I was personally at fault when it came to some of the damage that had been done across the city.

“You want a better reason?” she asked.  She stepped close and pulled him down to hiss words in his ear.  She wasn’t being as quiet as she seemed to think she was, trying to hide her words from me and the kids.  “…they attacked me and Char… mauled them…  Mannequin…

I shifted positions, and Sierra must have seen it, because she lowered her voice to an inaudible hush as she finished.

Rattling off a list of the things she’d seen me do.  Reasons that gave her cause to be spooked if her brother was mouthing off to me.

When we’d met, Sierra had commented that I wasn’t what she’d expected from a supervillain.  Somewhere along the line, I’d painted a different picture.  She clearly had no trouble with me on a day-to-day basis, but she also knew that when I was pushed… well, I’d gone easy on the three ABB members that had attacked her and Charlotte, but that was only in a matter of speaking.  I’d still left them fleeing in mortal terror.

Bryce looked at me and I could see him give me a once-over glance, as if assessing me in a new light.

“Go help Brooks,” I told him.  “I’ll direct you to him with my swarm.”

It took him a second to weigh whether he wanted to or not, but he did turn and step out the front door, following the thin trail of bugs that I was gathering between him and the warehouse we were keeping supplies.

“Want me to go, too?” Sierra asked.

“Your choice.  Might be better to give him space.”

“I keep having to do that.  When do we start being a family again?”

I’m not the person to answer that question.

“If you decide to leave him be, I could use a hand collecting some things so I can make effective use of my time.”

“Okay,” she said.  She seemed to pull herself together a bit.  “What do you need?”

“My laptop from my room, and the surveillance stuff from the cellar.  There’s another set of surveillance gear in the bag beneath the shelves.”

Sierra hurried off to gather the equipment.

The ensuing minutes were a little disorganized, as Bryce and Brooks both arrived with the last of the medical equipment.

“Blood type?”

“AB.”

He took one bag of blood out of the box and placed it on the counter.  “Want to do this in your room?”

“I have an armchair on the second floor I could sit in.”

“Need you reclining.”

“I have somewhere to be tonight,” I told him.  Though this would be something of an excuse to avoid the kill.  “Don’t put me under.”

“This is going to hurt.”

I had another reason for not wanting to be put under.  I wanted to keep an eye on him.  My conversation with Tattletale had suggested he wasn’t a threat, but I’d feel a heck of a lot better if I could verify that for myself.

“Do you have local anesthetic?” I asked.

“Yes.”  He tapped one finger on a tiny bottle.  Lidocaine.  I recognized the name.  “But will not prevent all pain.  I do not want to use too much.”

“We’ll try that, then.”

We headed up to the second level and I settled into my chair.  For additional lighting, I had my ‘switch beetle’ flick the concealed switch that was contained in his terrarium.  They lit up as I settled in.

Brooks hooked up the blood bag but left the tube hanging, unconnected.  Other supplies were arranged on the table he’d had Bryce bring up.  He seemed very particular about the order and what was being kept

“For a field medic you seem pretty well versed in this stuff.”

“Worked in many hospitals,” he replied.  “Many places.  Often with less than this.  Sometimes with more.”

“Okay.”

“We will have to dislocate your shoulder to access the inside of shoulder socket.”

“Okay.”

“You will take muscle relaxant to minimize damage from dislocation.  You will need to exercise arm to prevent more dislocations.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, the possibility that it was actually poison, but the muscle relaxant came from the bottle, and they had the brand logo etched into them.  One potential danger averted.  No way he’d arranged it this quickly.

“I can do that.”  I took the pills with a swig from the offered bottle of water.

Sierra arrived with the laptop and a large bag.  She handed me the laptop and then plugged it in beneath one of the lower shelves.  I balanced it on my armrest, turning sideways so I was sitting with my bad shoulder facing out front, my legs curled around me for as much stability as I could hope for.  Sierra began arranging towels and plastic cloth around the chair.

“This would be easier if you just lay down,” Bryce said.  I saw Sierra scowl at him.

“It is fine,” Brooks said.  He lifted my arm and let it flop back down.  I tried not to react to the pain that elicited.  “Only one that suffers is her.”

“Ever a charmer, Brooks,” I commented, but my attention was on the laptop.  I used the switch beetle to open all of the terrariums, and withdrew collections of spiders, dragonflies, large moths and roaches.

“They should not touch chair,” Brooks said.  “Or anything on table.  Must keep everything as sterile as we can.”

“I know,” I said.

I gathered the components from the bag, using my bugs to draw them out and airlift the miniature cameras, microphones and transmitters into the air.  One by one, I turned them on and used the laptop to connect to them.  I used my free hand to click through each camera in turn, making their feeds the focus of the main window.

Using my bugs, I drew forms around each, vaguely humanoid.  It wasn’t as intuitive as I was forced to use my own eyes to assess the accuracy.  Still, I managed to rearrange each until they vaguely resembled me.  I marched them down the stairs.

“Outside end first,” Brooks said, starting up the rotary saw.

Not my favorite sound.  And the sensation of it sawing at the metal, it brought back even more unpleasant memories.  Being on my back, Bonesaw trying to cut a hole through my skull…

I shivered.

“Don’t move,” Brooks said.

I focused on my swarm-clones, staying totally still while he worked on removing the metal end of the dart.  They were largely composed of flying bugs, but I was bulking each of the forms out as more bugs arrived, giving them a more solid mass.  I used my free hand to pop my ear-buds in.

I felt bad about leaving my territory as often as I had been.  People were spooked, scared and insecure.  Having a leadership figure that was never around wasn’t helping matters.

This would, I hoped, establish a kind of presence that had been lacking.

Sierra had been coordinating everyone, trying to put people with experience in charge of people who were lacking it.  It was interesting, trying to hold multiple conversations at once with the various project leaders.  Difficult, too.  For one thing, my speech with my swarms was somewhat lacking, missing consonants, but I could still make myself more or less understood.  For another, my ears could only process one thing at a time.  I managed by talking with one or more swarm-clone while listening with one at a time.  After too many misfires and moments of confusion, I scaled down my efforts to a single conversation at once, simply standing silently by with my other selves.

I made a mental note to try to practice with that.  Exercising the range of my power hadn’t done anything for me, and there didn’t seem to be any upper limits to how many bugs I could control at once, but there had to be other ways I could train my abilities.  Multitasking was one I hadn’t tried yet.  Trying to interpret the senses of my bugs was another, though I feared it would take a more concerted effort to effect any sort of change.

When Charlotte returned, I was in the middle of helping a foreman with the layout of a building, using spiders to draw out a loose web in the general shape of the planned shelter, lifting bits of wood to make the lines more visible from a distance.  I adjusted the threads as required to meet his needs.  Charlotte climbed out of a truck with five more of my people and made a beeline to my swarm-clone.  One hundred and ninety people working for me.

Word was apparently getting out about this being a safe haven.

My conversation with her was delayed as Brooks enlisted Bryce in twisting and pulling on my arm while Brooks held my neck and torso.  Bryce drove his elbow against my shoulder while it was being twisted to its absolute limits, effectively knocking my arm out of its socket.

I managed to avoid making any noise beyond a guttural grunt, then took a few seconds to try to avoid blacking out from the pain.

As heavily as I was breathing, back in my lair, my swarm-people didn’t show any sign.  I focused the whole of my attention on them, as if I could remove my consciousness from my real body.

“Any problems?”  I asked Charlotte, once I’d recovered enough to pay attention.  Glancing at my shoulder, I could see Brooks making an incision in the skin of my shoulder.  He’d managed to open the tear in my costume.  I hadn’t been paying attention to how.  I deliberately looked away as Brooks tried to forge a path  to the inside of my shoulder socket.

“Not sure,” Charlotte said.  “Have a look.”

It was Parian.  I’d been so focused on my shoulder, the three-dimensional web-blueprint and my swarm-selves that I hadn’t noticed her getting out of the truck.

“You didn’t leave,” I said, when she’d joined Charlotte and my swarm-clone.

“I didn’t think the money would be real,” she responded.

“Of course it was.”

“It’s… it was a lot of money.  Very generous.  But we were talking about it, and split between us, it’s not enough to give everyone all the care they need.  I told them to go ahead, that I didn’t need a share.”

“Sorry.  I was worried it wouldn’t be enough,” I said.  “Are you saying you want more money?  I might have to say no.  There’s a limit to what I can spare.”

“No!  No.”  She hugged her arms to her body, looking around at the people who were working.  “Just… I thought maybe I should hear you out.”

“Okay,” I responded.

“Except it’s not really you?”

My clone shook her head.

“Can I talk with the real you?”

“I’m in my lair, and I’m preoccupied.  You’ll understand if I don’t reveal the location, given who your friends are?”

“Yeah,” she said.  She was still looking around, watching as a group moved by, pushing wheelbarrows of burned wood.  “I… I was telling myself that there was no point to taking your offer, that I could use my power and make more money legitimately.  But that’s not true at all, is it?”

“Walk with me?” I asked.

She nodded.

I led the way through my territory with my clone as I talked.  “Crime does pay.  I made the offer to you because I thought it would be the best way to get your Dolltown residents the money they needed to get their old lives back.  Or get as close to their old lives as possible.”

“I kind of hate you,” she said.

“Why?”

“You’re making it out like I’m a bad person because I won’t betray Flechette and my own moral code to help them.”

“I don’t blame you for your decision.  I don’t think any less of you.”

“But you wouldn’t make the choice I’m making.”

“No.  I didn’t.”

“And you’ve done more to help my people than I have.”

“You’ve protected them to the best of your ability through this city’s darkest hours.”

“You really think we’re past that?  The bad days?”

“Yes.”

I winced as the grinding resumed, this time inside my shoulder socket.  A makeshift rigging inside the cavity caught the metal shavings, while Bryce held the tube to suction the metal shavings out.  So far, no assassination attempts.  Good.

“I don’t know what to do,” Parian admitted.  “This is… seeing it makes me wish I’d done something like it.”

“I’m not going to push you towards one choice or another.”

“I know.  You made that clear when you gave me the money with no strings attached.”

“Look,” I said.  “I know Flechette was saying my perspective is warped, but I think the system… you know, society, it’s like a series of rules and expectations that we established under some general expectations.  But recent events have made it pretty clear that those expectations, those assumptions, they might not apply.”

“Because of us?  Capes?”

“Yeah.  At the end of the day, barring some extreme examples like powerful dictators, there’s always the fact that any bad person who doesn’t have powers can be killed with a gun, a knife, or even a good punch in the right place.  That’s not the case with us parahumans.  The balance of power is pretty damned off-kilter.  Things aren’t fair.”

“Are you making that imbalance better or worse?”

“I’m… addressing the problem.  I’m saying there’s no point to trying to hold on to the old status quo when it’s based on a foundation that no longer exists.”

“So you’re going to take over the city.”

“Yes.  Because at least for right now, I can give these people what they need.”

I moved my clone’s ‘head’ and followed a group of kids who were running away from my lair, carrying six-packs of water bottles.

“And later?”

“I don’t know.”

We walked in silence, past a bonfire where scrap wood was being burned.  Brooks and Bryce, meanwhile, set to shoving my arm back into its socket.  All of the ambient pain disappeared in an instant.

Parian needed the money, she needed the assurance that she could help the people she’d failed.  I understood that.

“I can offer you one last compromise,” I said.

“What?”

“I can’t guarantee it’ll work, I can’t say if anyone else will accept the proposal, and I don’t know what’s going to happen long-term, but we don’t have to call you a member of our team.  We don’t have to call you a villain.”

“But I’d take territory for myself anyways?”

“Yes.”

“Others would call me a villain, just because I wasn’t fighting you guys.  They’d know I was cooperating with you.”

“Not necessarily.  Maybe the people in charge, the Protectorate and Wards, maybe they’d understand it, but the people on the ground level wouldn’t.”

“The media would out me.”

“I think we control the media.  Or enough to throw some doubt into the mix.  The rules are pretty simple.  You take territory, you hold it, and you ensure that there’s no crime or parahumans operating there without your consent.”

“And Flechette-”

“I don’t know her.  I can’t say how she’ll react, but maybe if you explain nicely, maybe if you frame it right, you could convince her it’s for the greater good.  So long as she convinced the other heroes to leave your territory alone, let you enforce the law there all by yourself, you wouldn’t have to fight them.”

“And if she didn’t-”

“That’s up to her.  Or you.”

She stared around my territory.  It wasn’t pretty, there was still devastation everywhere, but things were getting better.  It was maybe the only place in the city where things were improving as fast as they were.  We weren’t taking two steps forward and one step back.  It was all forward momentum.  Not even a week had passed, admittedly, but it was progress.  And it was apparent.

“I don’t think I could accept if Flechette doesn’t agree.”

“Okay.”  The alternative was unspoken.  If she does

“I hate you,” Parian said, and it was answer enough.

Brooks was finishing stitching up the incision in my shoulder.  I already had two pieces of scrap spider silk at the ready – one to cover the hole in my costume and another to serve as a sling until my shoulder was stronger.  If I adjusted my cape, I could cover the arm so the injury wasn’t too obvious.  I stood from the chair and stretched, then reached for my cell phone.

“I can live with that,” I told her, speaking through my swarm-clone.  I clicked through my contact list and called the man who was plotting to kill me.

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Colony 15.6

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Not my brightest move, I had to admit.  The problem with acting like I was tough enough to shrug off an attack from a knife wielder was that the illusion failed pretty damn hard when I actually got stabbed.

I’d been relying too much on my costume.

“If I see a single bug, I’ll be forced to use this,” Flechette said, angling the spike of metal in her hand so I could see it better.

“Isn’t that going too far?” Parian asked, her voice small.

“No,” Flechette said.  Her hand was still poised to strike the second I moved.

“She was just talking.”

“She just talked to Panacea, if you remember.  And I told you before, the last time Glory Girl was seen was in her company.  I’ve explained what happened after that.”

“You think she did it?”

Did what?

“I think the thinker-seven on her team might have.  Running theory is that Tattletale has a clairvoyance that lets her see weak points.  Finds the points to attack in people, security systems, patrol routes, reverse-engineers the results to get general information.”

Okay, she’d hit the key points, but sort of got it backwards.

“That was Jack,” I said.  “Jack was the one who got to Amy.”

“Occam’s razor.  Most likely answer is often the correct one.  Or something like that,” Flechette said,  “Is it going to be Jack, who has powers we already know?  Or is it going to be Tattletale, who has set down more than enough precedent for that kind of behavior and a still-unknown power?  It fits what your group’s trying to do, taking over the city for yourselves.  And I should point out that records do seem to point to people being left devastated or ruined wherever you go.  Panacea, Armsmaster, the Slaughterhouse Nine-”

“You’re complaining about us taking out the Nine?  And that wasn’t all us.  It wasn’t even mostly us.  That was everything going to hell and people with issues getting pushed past their limits.  We were only involved because we’ve tried to help every step of the way.”

“You think she was going to do to me what she did to Glory Girl and Panacea?” Parian asked.

“I’d say the possibility exists,” Flechette said. “And that’s reason enough to be very careful.”

Damn this.  “I’m not trying to fucking corrupt or psychologically traumatize Parian.  Or anyone else!  Yes, we’re trying to take over the city.  Yes, we’re currently working on eliminating the competition-”

“Mm,” Flechette murmured, her expression hard.

“But that’s not why I’m here, not exactly.  It serves our goals just as well if I recruit Parian.  It’s one person out of the way, and it gives us a way to help people who need it.”

“So you say.”

Fuck, I hate it when people do that.  ‘Everything you say is a lie, including any protests or arguments over the fact that you’re a liar.'”

There was a crash, further away than the last.  Ballistic had headed in a different direction.  For the moment, at least, we were out of harm’s way.

“You’re sort of well-known in the community for being deceptive and underhanded.”

“Because of what Armsmaster said at the hospital?”

“In part.”

“Is nobody paying attention to the fact that he was seriously bent in the head?  To the point that the Slaughterhouse Nine thought he was a good candidate for their group?”

“Mannequin targeted Armsmaster to mess with him.  It’s his M.O..  He goes out of his way to attack and ruin tinkers and other individuals who could do something for society.”

“I love how the so-called ‘good’ guys get to revise events to make stuff more convenient for them.”

“It’s a perk.  People tend to trust your version of events when you’re doing what’s right,” Flechette said.  The spike she gripped between two fingers tapped against my throat, but didn’t pierce the fabric.  She wasn’t using her power or she could have killed me.

“You’re implying that you guys are doing what’s ‘right’ that much more often than we are.”

“That should be obvious.”

“And you really believe that?”

“Have to.”

“Do you know why Armsmaster was arrested?”

“He wasn’t.”

“Unofficially arrested, then.  Do you know why he was cooped up in the local PRT headquarters, with no official title or role?”

“He was in therapy for his injury.  He lost an arm.”

“I know.  I was there when Leviathan tore it out of the socket.  I applied pressure to the wound to try to stop the blood loss.  But that’s not why they locked him up.  They could have given him an administrative position if it was just an injury, and they didn’t.”

“Maybe they did.  It’s not like either of us were there when the decisions were made.”

“With no job title?  They didn’t list one for him, and with the state of the city, they could have leveraged his reputation alone to boost morale, just by saying Armsmaster was in charge of the local task-forces.”

“There’s emotional stress with permanent injuries, too.”

“Plenty of people under just as much stress, if not more, after the Endbringer hit.  But I’ll admit your perspective’s better than mine,” I said, looking up at her.  “You joined the Wards just in time to see the aftermath of Gallant and Aegis dying.  How did they handle that?  If the PRT was that accommodating with Armsmaster, I’m sure they arranged for therapy and time off for all the Wards.”

“Yes to therapy,” she said.  “No to the time off.  Too much to take care of.”

“Oh?” I asked.  I hadn’t honestly expected them to enforce and allow for therapy.  It threw me off my stride.

“Why are you so surprised?  And where is this coming from?  Tattletale feed you this information?”

“Only some of the general details, like what Armsmaster was up to.  The bit about the PRT dropping the ball in taking care of you guys was mainly drawn from past experience.”

“But they didn’t.”

“Flechette,” Parian spoke up, “Weren’t you saying it was Weld who pushed for the therapy?”

Flechette shot her a look, as if she were thinking, Whose side are you on?

“Wards taking care of Wards,” I said.  “Okay, I think my argument stands.  No reason to suggest that Armsmaster was being coddled to that degree for any emotional or mental distress he went through.”

“What are you getting at?”

“I’m saying he was arrested.  Off the books.  And there aren’t really any reasonable explanations to the contrary.  People are still taking his word on events, taking his word on me, but he was as fucked up as any of us.”

“Given the choice, I’m going to take his word over yours, sorry.”

“That’s what I’m saying is screwed up!”  I hissed the last two words.  “Why?  Because of the label he chose to identify by?  He calls himself a hero and he gets more credit?”

“Because he put in a good fifteen years of hard work to improve this city, and because I think your perspective’s warped.”

Everyone has a screwed up perspective!  Especially here, especially now, with the way this city is.  My perspective’s fucked up because everyone I was supposed to rely on dropped the ball, and the only people I could count on were crooks!  Panacea got warped because her parents let her down, because nobody ever sat down and talked to her about who her dad was.  So she convinced herself that she was doomed to follow in his footsteps.”

“How do you know that?”

“I was there!  I, we, tried to help.  But she’s never had someone talk to her, so she didn’t know how to listen to us.  Which is probably a blessing in disguise, because she didn’t listen to Jack or Bonesaw either.”

Flechette gave me a funny look.  Her eyes were vague shadows behind her visor, but I could see one distort in size as she raised an eyebrow.

“What?”  I asked.  Something about Panacea and Glory Girl?  She’d said something earlier too.

She spoke, interrupting my thoughts before I could frame them into a question.  “Nothing.  I guess you’re going to tell me you tried to help Armsmaster too?”

“No.  I turned to him for help, and he tried to screw me over.  I joined the Undersiders to give him the details he wanted on their powers and methods and he not only hung me out to dry, but he tried to kill me.  He did kill Kaiser and Fenja, nearly killed Kid Win by accident, and there were others there too.  All for his own personal glory.  Because he had some kind of crazy tunnel-vision when it came to his personal ambition and successes.”

Flechette frowned.

I took the chance to hammer my point home.  “He knew I was just an undercover agent, but he thought my death and the casual sacrifices of the others who had chosen to risk their lives to stop Leviathan were worth getting a personal shot at killing Leviathan one on one.”

“What?” Parian asked.  “Seriously?  Doesn’t that violate the deal with-”

“Yes,” Flechette cut her off.  “Yes it would.”

I shrugged, looking at Flechette, Parian and the Dolltown residents.  “Probably going to get in trouble for revealing that, but I’ll leave it to you to decide what to do with that information.  I’m already a priority target anyways, pretty much, what with our intended takeover of the city.”

“You seem to be missing the point that you’re under arrest right now,” Flechette spoke.

I sighed.  “And nothing I say is getting through.”

“It’s exactly what I was talking about before, you’re just using information Tattletale fed you to try to screw with my head, fill me with doubts and paranoia.”

“And how would I know you’d be here?  I’d have to get the information from her in advance, remember?”

“Tattletale told you I’d be here.”

Okay, that’s admittedly possible.

“So your interpretation of events is that I knew you were here, I came prepared with all this made up information on Armsmaster to mess with you, and I just let you stab me?”

As if mentioning it reminded my brain, I could feel the pain radiating from my shoulder.  At least she’d left the spike in there.  It seemed even better at preventing the bleeding than I’d guessed it would be.  A snug fit?  I wouldn’t bleed to death in the next ten minutes.

She didn’t venture a response.

“Flechette, if you don’t believe me, you can look at the armband Dragon gave us for the fight against Leviathan.  Armsmaster fried it with an EMP to keep me from broadcasting Leviathan’s location to anyone, and then he moved in only after he’d thought Leviathan had killed me.  It’s on top of a ceiling panel in the shelter on Slater street.  Women’s bathroom, above the middle toilet.  I couldn’t keep it in case Dragon used it to track me down, but you can go grab it if she hasn’t sent someone already.  Get a tinker you trust to look at it.”

“The results could be fabricated.”

“Tell your tinker that.  He’ll keep it in mind, and he can tell you the likelihood of it being something I’m doing to frame Armsmaster versus it being Armsmaster’s work.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I’m trying to convince you that ‘right’ isn’t the exclusive property of the good guys, just like ‘wrong’ isn’t wholly on our side of the fence.  Armsmaster’s sense of ‘good’ was purely what was good for his own interests.  I’m trying to do the right thing more often than not, believe it or not, or I’m doing the wrong things for the right reasons.”

“And which were you doing here, trying to recruit Parian?”

I glanced at Parian, “I don’t know yet.  Thinking it’s more the latter.”

There was a rumble as Ballistic knocked over a building somewhere a distance away.

“We don’t need your help,” Flechette said.

“Don’t you?  I don’t know why you’re wearing that getup, but I’m assuming those other people are because of what Bonesaw did.”

I could see the people in the concealing costumes shifting uncomfortably.

“Why I’m in this costume isn’t any of your business.  I’m here to help.”

“I can help more.  I can get them medical attention, start reversing what the Slaughterhouse Nine did to them.”

Parian spoke, her voice quiet, “So you’re asking me to choose between being loyal to a friend who’s helped me, comforted me and kept me sane these past few weeks, or selling my soul for the… supposed greater good.”

“Saying you’d be selling your soul is a bit overdramatic,” I said.

“I’m an artist, I’m dramatic by nature.”

“Then let me make an emotional appeal.  Come to my territory.  Let me show you what I’m doing there, and what I want to help you do for your people.”

“You’ll just take the advantage of the situation to escape,” Flechette said.

“I don’t really think you can keep me,” I said, sounding calmer than I felt.

“We’ll see,” she responded.

I sent a command to Atlas.

“Easiest option is that I send a message to Ballistic.  I really don’t want to do that, because it’s going to get people hurt or killed.”

“His files say he doesn’t kill,” she responded.

“With his power?  It’s easy to accidentally go too far.  Combine that with the sheer danger your own power presents?  It’s like playing tag with guns.  Not saying I don’t respect your power, with the damage you did to Leviathan, but he can escalate harder and faster than you.  If you two get in a shootout, someone’s going to get hurt.”

As if to punctuate my statement, there was a sound of a building collapsing nearby.

“Well then,” Flechette said.  She adjusted her grip on the spike of metal that she held between her fingers.  A dart.  She poked it through the armor of my wrist.  When I tried to move my arm, it was fixed to the ground.  “I guess I’ll come back for you later, after Ballistic’s left.”

“Undo it, release me,” I said, pulling harder.

“No.  And stop struggling.  Unless you can tear that costume, you’re not going to pull free.  It’s bonded.”

“You’re making a mistake,” I growled.  “I’m only trying to help.”

“And I’m doing my job.  I get that maybe your intentions are good, but I’m obligated to take you in, especially now that I’ve heard your confession of intent to seize the city.”

“How many wrongs have been done by people who were ‘just following orders’?” I asked.

I directed Atlas in through an open window.  Every set of eyes was on Flechette and I, which made it easy for him to slip into the room.  My bugs had identified tripwires Parian had set, and navigating Atlas around them wasn’t too hard.

“Stop it!”  Parian cried.  For a second, I thought it had to do with Atlas, but her shout followed within a second of my question to Flechette.

Flechette looked like she’d been slapped.  I stopped Atlas where he was, poised a few feet behind Parian.  I folded his scythe-like claws down and out of the way.

“Skitter… if we let you go, do you promise not to attack or interfere under any circumstance?”

“Parian?”  Flechette asked.  She sounded almost hurt.

“It depends, are you going to go confront Ballistic?”

“Honestly?  Yes.  You said he’d keep coming until he took us out.”

I frowned, but they couldn’t see that behind my mask.  Ballistic was angry, he was dangerous, and there was little to nothing tying him to Coil’s service, outside of some vague sense of duty.

“Are you going to arrest him?” I asked.

“No,” Parian responded, at the same time Flechette said, “Yes.”

“We could scare him off,” Parian said.  “Beat him up a little.”

“And he’d bring in the other Travelers and Undersiders to wipe us out,” Flechette said.

Parian looked at me, “He wouldn’t, would he?”

I nodded, “He would.”

Parian sagged, dropping into a sitting position.  Flechette turned to look at her and froze.  “What the hell is that?”

She’d seen Atlas.

“I brought him in here as insurance,” I said.  “I was thinking about taking Parian hostage if you went ahead with my arrest, but she started being reasonable and I told him to back down.”

“What is he?”

“Panacea made him for me, for fighting the Nine.  Just a big beetle with sharp claws.”

That’s what you were using to fly around, when we were fighting the Nine?”

I nodded.

“Creepy.”

“Look,” I said, seeing a chance to regain control of the conversation.  “I’ll extend my offer a third time.  Join us, Parian.  We’re not as scary or as bad as we look at first glance.  You’ll see that if you check out my territory.  I’m not threatening you or extorting this out of you.  You can say no-”

“Because I have a weapon at your throat,” Flechette said.

“Because it’s her call,” I said, my voice firm.  “Because I really do think she’ll be safer overall.”

“From those people who ‘aren’t as scary or bad at first glance’,” Flechette said.

“From all the other capes and unpowered individuals who would prey on her and her people.”

“I can’t,” Parian said.  “No.  I have to turn down your offer.”

I sighed.  Damn.  Damn, damn, damn.  “Can I ask why?”

“Flechette’s done too much to help me, to help us, for me to turn around and become her enemy.  Even if it’s for the greater good.  And maybe they won’t forgive me for it, but I can’t agree to short-term gains, to giving them some medical care and reconstructive surgery now, in exchange for becoming a criminal for the rest of my life.”

“What if this was temporary?”  Can’t reveal too much.  Can’t let them know Coil’s reign ends soon, if everything goes according to plan.

“I’d still carry the label, wouldn’t I?  Maybe I don’t agree with everything Flechette said, but I do agree that just calling myself a villain, even for a short time, it wouldn’t be something I could shake so easily.  We’ll find another way.  I can use my power to make money, I’ll heal them.  I’ll make up for failing to protect them.”

A woman with a cloth hood covering everything but one eye reached out and put a hand on Parian’s shoulder, squeezed.

She felt the same kind of responsibility for her people that I did for mine.  The realization made me all the more disappointed that she’d said no.

“Okay,” I said.  “Flechette, I’m going to reach behind my back.  I’m not drawing a weapon.”

“No,” she said, “Whatever deals Parian is making, they don’t change the fact that you’re under arrest.  I have to do my job, and with the Nine gone, your faction is a priority.  Especially with your suspected involvement in the incident with Glory Girl and Panacea.”

I frowned.  I needed another option.  My armor was loaded down with bugs, and that included the compartment.  I could feel what I needed.  It was just a question of getting it free.

Spiders drew silk around the object in question, then made their way across my shoulder and up the back of my arm, braiding the threads together as they went and hooking them against the edges of my armor to get traction in the right areas.  They reached my hand and encircled one finger.

I twitched that finger and tugged the thread.  Another, harder pull, and it came free.   My bugs muffled the sound of the object hitting ground.

“What was that?” Flechette asked.

As a mass, they carried the object into plain view.  My cell phone.

“You make the call, so you know I’m not trying something,” I said.

Flechette frowned.  “There’s no reason.”

“There’s a great reason, but I don’t think you’ll believe me if we don’t do things my way.  Password to unlock the phone is seven-two-eight-one.”

She picked up the phone and threw it over her shoulder at Parian.  Parian caught it.

“Me?”

“I’m keeping my attention on Skitter.  Don’t forget to watch that beetle of hers while you’re making the call.”

Parian nodded, too quickly.  “What was that number?”

“Seven-two-eight-one.”

“Okay.”

“Go to the contact list.”

“It’s all gibberish.  Symbols and numbers and stuff.”

“It’s a code.  First number that starts with heart-star-colon.”

“Okay.  It’s ringing.  Should I put it on speaker phone?”

“No,” Flechette said.

“Tell her you’re speaking on behalf of Skitter,” I said.

Parian nodded.  “Um.  Hi?  I’m speaking for Skitter.”

“Tell her-”

“She just said, um, Emerald-S.”

“Tell her Celery-A.”

“Celery-A.  Okay.”

“Upstairs, beneath the workbench, to the bottom-left of the painting, there’s a panel.  Tell her to remove it.”

Parian relayed the instructions.  There was a pause of no less than two minutes before she said,  “The girl on the other end says there’s a safe.”

“Six-one-one,” I paused to let Parian relay the numbers, “Two-zero-three… one-zero-zero… six-six-three.”

“It’s open.  She says there’s stacks of money?”

“Tell her to gather two hundred thousand dollars from the safe, pick five people who need a break from work, C included.  Only C should know about it, I don’t want the others to get greedy.  They can pack it into a truck, head north and meet you just before the ramp where Lord Street turns on to the ninety-five.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Leave this city, Parian.  There’s nothing good left here anymore.  That money’s yours.  Use it to heal and help the friends and family you still have left.  Get out of here, use the money to get yourselves settled, get some therapy for everything you’ve been through, and go pursue that career in fashion you said you wanted.”

Why?”

“There’s been too much ugliness here.  There’s bound to be more.  I… I guess I have the money, and you need it.  And I guess I feel complicit in what happened.  The Nine did what they did to Dolltown because we’d forced them into a corner.  Maybe they would have attacked anyways, they were headed your way.  I don’t know, but let me do this.  Let me… I don’t know.  Saying ‘clear my conscience’ sounds naive.”

“And to get this money, I have to leave this city?” Parian asked.  She looked stunned.

“Consider it a strong encouragement.  In the end, it’s your choice.  I’d appreciate it if you kept quiet about my role in your leaving, and about me giving you the money.  I think the Undersiders would understand, for the most part, but the Travelers might take issue with my interference.”

She didn’t have a reply.  I glanced at Flechette but I didn’t see anything in her expression.

“My employee is still on the phone,” I reminded her.

“Oh.  Um.  What was I supposed to say, again?”

I repeated the message.

While Parian relayed it, Flechette commented, “That’s a lot of money to be giving away.”

“I have more.”  I did.  The amount I was giving Parian amounted to a little less than a third of my current holdings.  The bank account Coil had assigned to me seemed to be growing in alternating stutters and huge bounds.  The benefit of having a bank account that was managed by a guy who called himself ‘the Number Man’, I supposed.

“Lucrative job you have there.”

I didn’t reply.  It was just enough money that it’d be just a little tight to manage in the immediate future, but I felt like it wouldn’t be meaningful if it didn’t inconvenience me somehow.

“Okay,” Parian said.  “She said they’ll be waiting.”

“My territory is closer to the destination than you are.  You should leave sooner than later.”

She nodded.

“This isn’t some trick?” Flechette asked.  “Some trap you pre-arranged with those code words?”

“The code was just to inform her everything was fine.  No trap.  But I think you’ll want to accompany her and the others, just to make sure they arrive safely.  There’s still dangerous people on these streets.”

Would she tell me Parian could handle herself?

Flechette turned to look at Parian, apparently considering the same thing.  “You play dirty, Skitter.”

“All things considered, I think I’ve been exceedingly fair.”

“I can’t guard her and keep an eye on you at the same time.”

“That was the idea.”

“I could nail you down to the ground.  Wouldn’t even be hard.  You’d have to tear your costume to shreds and run back to your territory in whatever you’re wearing underneath that.”

“You could.”  I didn’t point out that if she did do that, I wouldn’t have a chance of tearing my costume.

“I still think you have a warped perspective on things.  I don’t think you’re right.”

“I told you where the armband is.  Slater street, women’s toilets, on top of the ceiling panel above the second of the three toilets.  If Dragon hasn’t tracked and removed it.”

“Right.”

“Good luck,” I told her.  “Whatever happens.”

“We’re on opposing sides, you know?  The next time we meet, we’ll be fighting.”

“Doesn’t mean I wish you badly.”

“Right.”

She didn’t free my armor from the floor, but she stood and joined Parian, who was already walking away.  I heard her murmuring, “…to New York City.  I’ll be finished here in two weeks…”

And then they were out of earshot.  There was the sound of Ballistic continuing his rampage, tearing Dolltown to the ground.

Maybe it was good if this place was leveled to the ground.  I wasn’t superstitious, I wasn’t religious, but with what the Nine had done here, even their relatively short visit to this area, it felt darker.  Wrong.  There was too much death and sadness that had occurred here.

Was that true of the city as well?  Was it better just to raze it to the ground and start anew?

I reached over slowly, wincing at the coarse sensation of metal dragging against bone and the red-hot pain of my own tearing flesh..  The movement in my shoulder had shifted the metal spike Flechette had embedded there, pulling sideways against the hole it had punched in my shoulder. I could see the blood welling out, running down into the fabric of my costume.  Once I had my hand in position, I began unstrapping the armor panel from my wrist.

Free to stand, I used my knife and some kicks to get the armor free of the floor.  Rather than pull the spike free of the flooring as I might have with a nail, I wound up pulling out a roughly cone-shaped chunk of wood, the spike and everything it had contacted seeming to have bonded together.  I picked up the armor and tucked it under one arm.

This could have gone worse.  I might have to face some ramifications if the PRT took offense to my bringing up what had happened with Armsmaster, but somehow I felt like I couldn’t have let Flechette stay in the dark.  I just wasn’t sure if that was for my sake or if it was for hers.  The money I’d handed away would hurt, too, but it felt necessary.

I needed medical attention, and I felt like I had to check on my territory after I’d seen Parian’s.  I climbed onto Atlas.  His flight would be smoother and less jarring than walking.

I heard another crash as Ballistic continued tearing through Dolltown.  I could have notified him that Parian was gone, but… no.

Maybe this wanton destruction would give him a chance to vent and find release over whatever it was that was haunting him.

I’d have to get in touch with Trickster and Genesis to arrange our visit with the Mayor for tonight.  I’d have to deal with the threat on my life, whatever form it took.

I didn’t feel afraid.  Anxious?  Yes.  But not terrified, not quivering or panicking.  I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.  Grue had lamented my lack of survival instincts, not so long ago.  Had recent events worn them down even further?

I shook my head.  I’d have time for introspection later.  For now, I had to plan.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Colony 15.5

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

We fell silent as Regent stepped out of the cell with Victor in tow.

“How’s he handle?” Tattletale asked.

“Like a Mercedes with an invisible, sticky gear shift,” Regent said.

“Care to explain?”

Victor stretched, and said, “Everything moves well, peak condition, but his power doesn’t work so hot with him as a puppet.  Can’t tell what I’m borrowing or who I’m stealing from.  I think I’d need his cooperation-”

Our captive sneered a little.

“-And I don’t think he’s willing to give it,” Regent said.

“So the question is whether we want to take the time to try to convince him or take an indirect route,” Grue said.

“Skitter’s going to have to go in a few minutes, so let’s see what you can do in the here and now?”

“Sure.”  Grue extended a hand and smothered Victor in darkness.  A second later, he said, “I’m getting something.  Anyone here speak another language? Sug puppene til horemammaen din?”

“No,” Tattletale said.  “You’re getting that from Victor.”

“Can’t really use it.  Now how do I change what I’m stealing?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “It could be you’re only picking up the surface stuff.  Here, Regent, try some martial arts forms.”

“Like what?  I don’t know this stuff.”

“Victor does.  You fight using your puppets’ muscle memory, right?  Try moving around, see what clicks and Grue will let you know if we’re accomplishing anything.”

There was a pause.  Victor’s hand briefly flashed out of the cloud of darkness as he shifted positions.

Grue rolled his shoulders some.  “Yeah.  There’s a martial art in there somewhere.  I’m picking something up, but it’s slow.”

Tattletale smiled.  “Take everything you can.  We’ll see what sticks.”

“It’s kind of depressing,” Grue said, settling onto a stool, “I always took some pride in honing my body, training, all that.  This feels like cheating.  Skipping the hard work.”

“You said you never had the time or interest to dedicate yourself to investing in a martial art,” Tattletale pointed out.

“I didn’t.  But that’s not to say I wouldn’t eventually.  A few years down the line, when things are quieter, I can see myself doing that, earning belts and learning to fight.”

“If you don’t want to do this,” Regent said, “I could do something else with my day.”

Grue shook his head.  “No.  It’s fine.  Doesn’t feel quite right, but I’ll be able to do more to help you guys if I can fight better, if I’m more versatile.  And I’m getting another language, again.  Latin, I think.  Get him doing the forms again?”

Regent sighed.

Tattletale frowned, “He’s trying to drag you off course.  Using his brain to bring other stuff to the surface.  Listen, I’m going to see Skitter off, and then I’ll talk to Coil, see if he has anyone who could drug Victor and mess with his mental functions without incapacitating him.”

Drugs, like the ones Coil’s using on Dinah, I thought.  And this would give Tattletale and me a chance to have some words about the hit Coil had put on my head.

I had to wonder why?  I was arguably doing the best among his underlings.  Why was it so hard for him to simply let Dinah go, maybe take countermeasures to ensure she didn’t betray him, and leave things alone?

I wouldn’t be any threat to him if he wasn’t doing something morally reprehensible.

We left Regent and Grue to their task and stepped out of the wing with the cells, venturing onto the metal walkway that overlooked the lower level.  I could see the Travelers at the vault door that kept Noelle contained, as well as the soldiers going about their business.

Which struck me as odd, when I thought about it.

“What’s with the soldiers?” I asked.  “He’s got, what, fifty or sixty here?”

“A little under that, but some are elsewhere.”

“Why?  I get that he was using them before, fighting Empire Eighty-Eight, but what’s he using them for now?  He didn’t send them against the Endbringer, he didn’t use them against the Nine.  I get that he maybe fought off the Merchants and the Chosen when they were thriving, kept them from gaining too much steam, but it seems like a lot of money to spend on soldiers he doesn’t intend to use.”

“Well,” Tattletale said, leaning on the railing.  “One, keeping them employed here means they won’t be hired by someone else.”

“Right.”

“And I think they factor into his plan.  Either as a contingency or a greater aspect of it.”

I nodded.  I would have asked what that plan was, but I didn’t want to say anything that would be too suspicious if overheard.  Not while we were on Coil’s turf, especially.

Tattletale didn’t seem to have those same concerns.  She leaned closer and murmured, “You’ve got two jobs back to back.  That means you’ve got a few things to do.  Number one, if we’ve got a mole in our group and our communications are compromised, that means we need a mole in Coil’s group.  Someone that can inform us about any of Coil’s movements he’s wanting to keep concealed from us.”

“Ballistic?” I asked.

“Mm,” she murmured a response.  “Sound him out.  Be careful about it, but try to get a sense of how tight he is with the rest of the Travelers.  Like Cherish said, Trickster isn’t tight with his team.  See just how un-tight Ballistic is with his boss, and maybe we can make some inroads.”

“Okay.”

“That won’t be easy, because I get the sense he doesn’t like you, and he’s upset you’ve stepped on his toes here.”

I frowned.

“The second thing?  About the possible murder attempt?”  She asked.

“Just a little worried about that.”

“He only decided it as recently as this morning, so anything he’s set up is going to happen later.”

“And you don’t know how he’s going to approach this, or what he’ll do?”

She shook her head.  “All I know is that Coil’s intending for it to happen tonight, probably related to your job with the mayor.”

“And you’re positive on this?”

“It’s one of those things where everything clicks into place perfectly if we acknowledge this one fact: he wants to kill you.  For example, he has more reasons to send Imp than to send Trickster.”

“How’s that work?”

“I’ve already filled Imp in on this, but Coil’s concerned about Grue’s emotional state and what it means for our team as a whole.”

I nodded.  Which means he wants to remove Imp from the picture to see how Grue handles himself.

“So we’re keeping that on the down-low.  I’m not sure when we’ll be able to do it, but I’ve talked with Imp and Regent, and sort of hinted on the subject with Bitch, and we might be looking at making you our team leader.  At least for a little while.”

I snapped my head around to look at her.

“It makes the most sense.  You have the best grip on who’s in play and how to use our abilities.  You think tactically,” she murmured.

“Why not you?”  I asked.  “You have seniority, you have more experience, you can apparently keep track of Imp, and you can identify our enemy’s weaknesses.”

“I’m not sure I have more experience,” Tattletale admitted, “Or at least, my experience doesn’t count for much.  Robbing software companies and casinos doesn’t really compare to going toe to toe with Mannequin.”

“My other points stand.”

“Just because we’re putting you in charge doesn’t mean I can’t still handle that stuff.  If you want to delegate to me at any point, that’s fine.  It’s just a question of who we turn to when we need a spur of the moment decision.”

“I’m not good at those.  I’m only good when I can plan, consider everything that’s at play.”

“I don’t think you give yourself credit.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, you’re good at improvising.”

“With just me, maybe.  Just my own abilities.  I’m not sure I can do that if I’m also worrying about the four of you.”

“We’ll have to see in the field.  Unless you’re really going to argue Grue’s going to be able to hold his own in a high pressure situation?”

I frowned behind my mask and shook my head.

“Of course, discussing this means nothing if you get killed.  Don’t.”

“Easy as that?  Don’t get killed?”

“You’re going into a tricky situation with the most amoral member and the most versatile member of their group.  Keep an eye on everything and try to be unpredictable so they can’t get you in a trap.”

I just had to figure out how to do that with a job this cut and dry.

“Ballistic’s coming,” Tattletale said.  I looked and saw Ballistic ascending the staircase at the far end of the walkway.  It would take him a minute or three to join us.

“Any final tips before I’m left with him?”

“He’s angry.  Coil’s roped in the Travelers by promising to help them with Noelle, but there’s two snags in that which we may be able to use.  For one thing, I don’t know if Coil seriously intends to offer any fix he does find.  For another, Ballistic cares less about that than anyone else.  Or maybe it would be better to say he almost doesn’t want to help with that because Trickster wants it so badly.”

“That sounds like it’s less about team friction and more about sheer enmity.”

“I think they were really good friends once and now they’re distant.”

Well, it wasn’t like I wasn’t unfamiliar with that idea.

“And,” she said, her voice low, “I can tell you the Noelle thing isn’t the only crisis they’re working on handling.  The focus on Noelle is something of a sore point with Ballistic.”

“Vague.  And I can’t really say anything about that without admitting the info came from you.”

“Yeah,” she said.  Then she straightened, turning toward Ballistic.

“That huddle looked like a conspiracy at work,” he commented.  He looked like he’d based his costume off of the capes of a different era, with only some concessions made to fitting in with his team’s color scheme; a costume in black with red patterns on the fabric, heavy on the armor panels and padding, making a big guy look even bigger.  His mask was square, with holes only for the eyes.  Belts and pouches were strapped across his entire body.

“Conspiracy?  Us?”  Tattletale grinned.

“You were whispering about something.”

“Boys,” she said, winking.

“Hm,” he didn’t look impressed.

“No, we really were talking about boys.  About Grue, specifically, and maybe replacing him as leader.”

“Hey,” I said, before I’d processed why she was saying that.  She wanted to earn some measure of trust by volunteering a secret.

She shrugged.  “They’re going to find out eventually.  We’ll have to trust Ballistic to not go running to Coil to tell on us.”

He folded his arms.  “Putting me in a compromising spot?”

“Sure.  You can handle it,” she told him.  She gave me a pat on the shoulder, “I’m going to see about those drugs for Victor.  Good luck to you two.”

“Tell me,” Ballistic said, as Tattletale strolled off, “Do you ever get past that point where you feel painfully uncomfortable around her?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “You get over that with time.”

I didn’t add that the discomfort he was describing was largely linked to the number of secrets one was trying to keep from her.  It almost went without saying.

“You’re still insisting on coming along?” he asked.  “You know I can handle this on my own.”

“I don’t doubt that.  But I’m kind of wanting to see this place.”

Why?”

“I’m running my own territory.  Maybe there are ideas I can use.  And I want to see how people are coping in other districts.”

“I’d ask ‘why’ again, but I’m not sure I’d get it.”

“If this city doesn’t get condemned, you’re going to have people moving into your district.  Even after the city’s infrastructure is up and running again, those people are going to put pressure on you for certain things.”

“See, you’re approaching this like a medieval lord, managing her serfs and servants and I see this more as being a watchdog.”

I gestured toward the exit, and he sighed.  We began making our way out of the base.

“Do you really want to limit yourself to being a watchdog?”

“When I’m making this much cash?  When even the top guys in this town would run scared from me?  Sure.”  He held the door open for me.

“And that’s all it comes down to?  Cash and being feared?”

“I’m a living gun and my surroundings are nothing but piles of ammunition.  What do you expect?  You don’t think you’re scary?”

“I think you can have money and power, you can be fearsome where necessary, but you can still make a difference at the same time.”

“Doesn’t seem worth it, working your ass off to make some people a little happier and more comfortable before the world ends.”

“You’re one of the people that’s fixated on that, huh?”

“The world’s gonna end.  How can you shrug that off?”

“It might not.”

“Right,” he said, clearly humoring me.

This wasn’t working.  Tattletale had said Ballistic was angry, but I’d taken that to be the same sort of anger that Bitch harbored.  Whatever was going on with Noelle and the group dynamics that had Sundancer so unhappy, it had made Ballistic angry at the world, angry at circumstance.  A different sort of anger, really: he didn’t really care about anything or anyone.

How was I supposed to get through to him if that was the case?

I decided to call him on it.

“Okay, so your only priorities are money and power?  Then why are you so annoyed that I’m coming along?  What does it matter?”

“It’s my business, my territory, and I’m capable of handling her on my own.  It’s insulting that Coil thinks I’d need any help, and it’s rude that you’d volunteer yourself without checking with me first.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Hypothetically, just going by what you were saying earlier, why should I give a damn?  The world’s going to end in a few years anyways.  What does it matter if I get on your bad side?”

“That’s different,” he said, sounding annoyed.

“Why?  Because it’s you that’s getting shortchanged?”

“Because we’re basically coworkers.  If we’re going to have to fight alongside one another, we can’t be worried about this sort of thing.”

“Okay, first of all?  I have a closer working relationship with the people in my territory than I do with any of the Travelers.  If and when you get more people in your territory, you might find that’s the same with you, too.  So I’m not sure I buy that coworker thing.”

“You’re talking apples and oranges.  Capes and non-capes.”

“Fine.”  He’d left an opening for me to target.  “Then I’ll just point to your other ‘coworkers’.  The other Travelers.  There’s obvious friction.  There’s resentment.  Cherish said as much.  So I don’t think you buy the coworker thing either.”

“Again, that’s different.”

“You say that a lot.  Maybe this principle you’re living by isn’t that strong if it can’t hold up to the most basic arguments.  Unless you care to explain why that’s different?”

“You’re grilling me for info on my team.”

“I’m curious what’s going on there, yeah.  But I’m also trying to figure you out.  As you said, we’re coworkers.”

“Weren’t you just debating the coworker thing?”

“Decide if you really believe it, let me know, and I’ll change my argument accordingly,” I said.

He sighed.

“I’m not trying to get on your bad side,” I said.  “Really.  But I’ve dealt with some interesting personalities like Bitch, Regent and Imp for a little while now, and I know I won’t be able to communicate with you until I understand where you’re coming from.  So I’m willing to go the extra mile to figure you out now so I can understand you in the future…”

I trailed off, but I kept one eye on him to see if there was any hint that he knew about Coil’s plans to terminate my future.  There was nothing.  I couldn’t see his face, but nothing had changed in his posture, his stride or overall body language.

“You’re not going to stop digging and get off my case here, huh?”  He asked.

I was mentally categorizing him as very similar to Bitch in many respects.  He was smarter, though, and the weapons he wielded in a discussion were less about threatening imminent harm than, what?  Setting himself further apart from me?  Breaking ties, categorizing me as an enemy in his head and making dealing with him harder in the future?

It would explain why there was a schism between him and the other members of his group.

“If you ask me to?  I’ll back off.  But…” I made the call on the spur of the moment, as I might with Bitch if I were positive she wasn’t about to hit me.  “I think you and I would both agree that you’d be admitting I’m right if you did.”

“That’s dirty.”

“Sure.”

“So what do you want to know, then?  Shall I divulge my deepest, darkest secrets?”

“I’ll settle for knowing why you’re all so angry at Trickster, why you specifically are angry at him.”

“Nope.  Can’t say.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Won’t.  We made a deal, and that deal means we’ve kept some stuff from Coil, even.  I’m not about to tell you.”

“I don’t need to know specifics.”

“You don’t need to know the general details, either.”

“Not really.  But maybe you need to tell me?  One of your teammates said they were awfully lonely, and they’re closer with the rest of the team than you are.  Maybe you’re lonely too, nobody to vent to?”

“I’m a guy.  We don’t do the whole emotional sharing thing.  You trying to channel Tattletale here?  Why are you so intent on getting the details, here?  This isn’t just curiosity or wanting to know your coworkers.”

Because so much hinges on my ability to get you on board against Coil.

I didn’t have a good response, so I fell silent.  We continued walking down the streets towards the crater-lake, our footsteps sloshing in the shallow water.

“He took everything from us,” Ballistic said, breaking the silence.

“Trickster?”

“Trickster.  When everything started falling apart, he stepped up to make the calls.  Bad ones.  And now the group is all we have left.  No friends, no family, no home to go back to, no goals beyond fixing Trickster’s fuckups.”

I was thinking of how it had come out that Sundancer was reluctant to use her powers because of the damage she’d done in the past.  Civilian deaths?  Had they included their own families?  Had Noelle been included in that?

It might explain why they were so gun-shy about using their powers to their fullest potential and why they’d been so insistent on keeping Noelle locked up when we were up against the Nine.

He went on, “The others might hate Trickster but they still respect him.  Or they don’t respect him but they don’t hate him either.  Probably more the former than the latter.  But I don’t have any love for the guy, I don’t have any respect for him either, and I seem to be alone in that.”

“So where do you go from there?”

“Now we’re back to square one.  I already explained.  Money, being feared, respect and living in comfort as a badass watchdog.”

“All that stuff about hating him, blaming him for ruining your life, and you don’t want any revenge on him?” I asked, as casually as I could manage.

“No.  I’m with the group for one reason.  I stick with shit.  Not going to turn on the guy.  I agreed to this thing with Coil because I thought it’d be a way to get back some of what we’ve lost, maybe.  But all I see is my teammates getting all starry-eyed with hope while Coil feeds us empty promises.  Saying Tattletale will find an answer, or he’ll make a request to some major scientists in parahuman study.  And of course there’s no answers.”

“There could be.”

“Nah.  Why would he give us what we want if it means losing our services?  But I don’t really care anymore.  I made a deal with Coil and I’ll stick that through until I have a good reason not to.  Way I figure it, fuck my team, fuck Coil, but it’s not worth confronting anyone over if it means I’m wasting the remaining two years of my life trying to get another gig this cushy.”

“That seems kind of claustrophobic, setting those restrictions on yourself, letting things with your team drop by the wayside.  Being all alone?”

“Won’t be alone.  Figure I’ve got enough cash and respect I can get groupies.  That’ll do for the next couple of years.  Unless you’re going to argue there’s some point to a committed, long term relationship when there’s no long term?”

I sighed.  There was no point in continuing this.  I could tell that Ballistic wasn’t going to budge, and I didn’t have a ‘good reason’ to convince him to join us.

We crossed several city blocks in silence.  When we’d reached the lake Leviathan had created downtown, we began to walk around to the north end to Dolltown.

“So how are we doing this?  Attack strategy?”  Ballistic asked.

“Any chance you’ll let me make the first move?”

“And take all the credit?”  His voice hardened.

“I’ll let you take half the credit if I’m successful.  You can take all the credit if I fail.”

“Nope.”

“What?”

“I get what you’re doing.  You want to make us Travelers look bad.  Get yourself a bigger slice of the pie somewhere down the road.  More respect, more power, and you’re doing that by wedging yourself into everything, getting hyperinvolved.  Gotta be in first place.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Right.  Then explain why you’re going overboard with your territory.”

“I’m getting the job done, taking care of my people.”

“Nah.  It’s more than that.  There’s something driving you to work that hard.  You’re looking to supplant us.”

He’d stopped walking.  I paused and turned to face him.

He chuckled lightly, “I don’t blame you for it.  I mean, it’s pretty scummy, when we’re supposed to be working together, but I get that you want to be on top.”

“We are working together.”

“I may be taller and in better shape than average, but I’m not dumb.  You think I didn’t catch the wedge you were trying to drive into our team?  Sounding me out for any hard feelings I might have for the others?”

Shit.  This sort of thing was Tattletale’s field, not mine.  Now it was going south fast, and I could imagine how this would explode in my face.

I cleared my throat a little and clarified, “I was sounding you out because it was clear you did have hard feelings for the other members of your team, and I wanted to give you a chance to talk about it.”

“Ah, so the creepy bug girl is really a softie in the end,” his voice was laced with sarcasm.  “No ulterior motives at all.”

“Whatever,” I said.  “Nevermind.”

“So fuck you,” he said.  “No, I’m not giving you first dibs on this doll woman.  Second I see her, I’m taking her out of action and making it a hundred percent clear it was all my doing.  You’ll get what you wanted, which you said was to see the territory, and I get what I want, which is to finish up my territory so I can kick back.”

This wasn’t how I wanted things to go on any level.  I could have groaned in frustration.  Instead, I sent out a command to my bugs and took a deep breath.

“Okay,” I told him.

“Yeah?”

“But I think I’ll stay out of the line of fire.  I get the impression I offended you, so maybe we give each other some breathing room?  Avoid getting shot?”

“I wouldn’t jeopardize the setup I’ve got with Coil for that.  But maybe it’s best you do stay out of the way.”

I nodded and turned to go.

Okay, so no mole inside the Travelers.

I could still hope to achieve something here.

Using my bugs, I tracked Parian’s movements within Dolltown.  She was moving quickly, joined by a small collection of people.  Many were shrouded in cloth, leaving me to guess if they were real people or something new she’d done with her creations.

I drew out directions with my bugs, guiding her away from Ballistic.  She didn’t listen at first, but that changed when Ballistic fired off his first attack, creating a deafening crash.  From the sound of it, he’d done something to send a car flying into a building.  A moment later, he did it again.  I walked faster.  I could call Atlas to me, but I didn’t want to get spotted in the air.

Dolltown was ugly.  It had been hit hard by the Nine and the fight between them and Hookwolf’s army.  There were scars on the buildings where Hookwolf had struck, holes and marks in the wall where Purity had fired her beams.  Menja had done some damage here and there, with some handprints marking various pieces of architecture where her gauntlets had bit into stone and metal.

I pushed open a doorway and stepped into a ruined building.  Parian faced me.  Her mask had a crack in it, and there was blood staining her worn frock.  She was surrounded by a half-dozen of her remaining people, each of whom wore masks and costumes.  A life-size doll, a man who was wrapped in fabric to the point that he looked something like a mummy, a little girl in a skintight suit of flannel with holes cut out for the eyes, one blue and one green.

Did Parian have capes working for her?  Or-

No.

They were the people Bonesaw had done surgery on.  The ones she’d altered to look like members of the Nine.  They were covering the faces and bodies Bonesaw had given them.

“What do you want?”  Parian asked.

“To negotiate,” I said.

“Your buddy isn’t too interested in negotiating, by the sounds of it,” she said.  She flinched as another crash sounded somewhere nearby.

“I took a gamble here, warning you about him.  He wanted to hurt you, make you into an example.  I don’t operate that way.”

“Don’t think I can trust you on that.”

“You’ll have to.  Because I’ve gone around Ballistic’s back, I’m kind of counting on you hearing me out, because if I fail here, it’s going to fuck up things with this alliance my team has with the Travelers.”  And with Coil.

She glanced around.  I could sense someone moving nearby.  One of her people, sneaking up behind me.  No gun, a light search with my bugs told me, and more of the same cloth costume the other Dolltown residents were wearing.  I ignored my potential assailant.  I could handle an attack from a knife.  I’d just need to be on guard in case they aimed to club me over the head.

“I know about the person that’s circling around to ambush me,” I said.  “Can we just talk, without someone trying to hurt me?”

“What are you wanting to talk about, then?”

“You got dealt a raw hand.  The Nine targeted you, like they targeted some people I care about.  People I love.  That’s not fair.  So I was thinking, I’ve got a lot of money.  I have access to resources.  I know it’s not much, it’s not really enough, but maybe we could get doctors for your friends and family.  Fix what’s been done to them.”

“And what would you want in exchange?”

“Join my team,” I said.  “I-”

“No.”

Listen,” I hissed the word, “It’s the best way to guarantee safety for everyone here.  It gets Ballistic off your back.  Even if you avoid him today, he’s going to level half of Dolltown, and he’ll come back tomorrow to level the other half.  Everything else would stay the same, you’d have the same freedoms, only we’d supply you with everything you need.  Not just rice and fresh water, but good food.  Medical care.  Proper shelter.  All you need to offer is lip service and we can fix so many of the things that have gone wrong here.”

The person behind me stepped closer.  I turned to keep an eye on her and she lunged in that same instant.

Three spikes of metal were sticking out from between her fingers, like improvised brass knuckles.  When she punched them into my shoulder, they went straight through my costume, piercing through the bone as though they were hot knives and I were nothing but soft butter.  She swept my feet from under me and pushed me to the ground.

“The lady said no,” Flechette told me, one hand holding me down, the other hand raised to strike me again.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Don’t cross the yellow line,” Flechette spoke.

“Right,” Vista agreed, “I got the message the last time I came this way.”

Flechette leaned forward, found a string, beaded with water from the rain.  She plucked it twice.

Parian sloshed out from a nearby alley.  A nine-foot tall rabbit with an eyepatch and boxing gloves followed a few feet behind her, moving on two legs, swaggering forward like it had a chip on its shoulder.

“It’s cute!” Vista smiled.

“Hi Vista,” Parian greeted her.  “Hi Flechette.”

“Hey,” Flechette smiled, “We come bearing gifts.”

Vista stepped forward and held out a shopping bag, “A dozen gallons of water, some rice, some tins of beans, multivitamins and first aid supplies.  My power will wear off pretty soon, so get the bag somewhere safe before then.”

“It’s basic stuff,” Flechette said, “But it’ll hold you for a little while.”

“Thank you,” Parian spoke, reaching over the makeshift yellow line for the bag.  She held it behind her back with both hands.  Just over her right shoulder, cloth formed into a rough shape, a trio of needles with attached spools of thread weaving in and around it, a razor cutting at pieces of it.

“How are you managing?”  Flechette asked.

“Some kids came through around noon, roughed up the mother of one of my friends.”

“I told you to call me if there was trouble!”

“I handled it.  Kind of.  They ran when they saw my rabbit.  According to my friend’s mom, they were trying to get someone to tell them where they could get food, and she was afraid they’d take everything if she told them where we have our stuff.  I think they were more hungry than dangerous.  Not enough food going around.”  The cloth took on a rough shape with arms and legs.  “Erm, that makes it sound like I’m blaming you guys-”

“You’re right,” Flechette interrupted.  “We’re not doing a good job of getting supplies to everyone.  We can’t.  Any time we try to distribute it, a group like Hookwolf’s gang or the Merchants try to seize it.  Even if the heroes on duty fend them off, the citizens get scared away.”

“I suppose we’re lucky to have this haven, here.  So far.  I dunno how long before someone I can’t scare off comes through.”

“You have my number.”

Vista turned away as a third voice sounded in her ear.  She stepped away from the conversation, shook her head a little to shake off the water that the steady rain was depositing on her.

Vista squeezed the earbud, “Sorry?  I didn’t catch that?”

“Weld here.  Kid Win has something to report, asked everyone to come in.  Can you make it back here quickly?”

“Okay.”

She hurried back to Flechette’s side and waited a few seconds for a break in the conversation.  When none was forthcoming, she put a hand on Flechette’s arm.

“What’s up?”

“Weld wants us back asap.”

A look of disappointment crossed Flechette’s face.

“I’ll see you later?” Parian asked.

“I’ll stop by later, unless I’m done with patrols for the night,” Flechette shrugged.

“I’ll look forward to it,” Parian replied. She turned to Vista, “Here.”

Vista accepted her gift.  A stuffed rabbit, made in the last-minute or so.  It was finely detailed, wearing a fancy dress with lace trim.  The fur had a softness that indicated high quality material, despite being wet.  She would have been delighted with the gift, were she four years younger.

It was still a really nice gesture.

She suppressed her annoyance at the child’s gift and offered a smile instead, “Thank you, Parian.”

“Let’s go,” Flechette spoke, “Back to headquarters?”

“Back to headquarters.  Come on, we’ll take my shortcut.”

They walked two blocks east to reach Lord street.  Beneath the water’s surface, they could see a fissure that ran down the center of the road, zig-zagging from one lane to the other.

Vista stepped out into the middle of the road at the edge of the fissure, then concentrated.  She felt her power extend to every solid object in front of her, formed a map in her head.  There was nobody out there, which made it easier.  Slowly, carefully, she began adjusting.  She truncated the length of Lord street, then did it again, repeating the process to make the four lane road shorter and shorter.  The fissure down the center of the road squeezed against itself like a compressed spring.

“This is disorienting,” Flechette spoke, as she gazed at the scene.  “My power gives me a grasp of angles… and I’m worried I might have a seizure if I try to use it to get a sense of what’s happening here.”

“It’s not that complicated.  Everything’s like wet clay, and I’m smudging it around.”

Vista deemed her work done, started walking forward.  Flechette followed, eyeing the distorted sidewalk at the edges of the effect.

“You’re powerful, kiddo,” Flechette said.

“Kinda.”

“You could be one of the top dogs in the Protectorate, in five or six more years.”

Vista frowned, “They said the same thing about Dauntless.”

“One of the Protectorate members who got killed, if I remember right?”

Vista nodded.

Flechette frowned, “That’s… unexpectedly dark, coming from you.  Where did that come from?”

“What we do is dangerous.  Sometimes we die.  I don’t see why I should worry about what happens five years from now when I might not even be here.”

“Are you having second thoughts about being on the team?”

Vista gave Flechette a look, “No.  Not in the slightest.”

“But if you’re concerned about risking your life…”

“I didn’t say I was concerned,” Vista said, a note of exasperation in her voice, “Just that, hey, it might happen.  I’m being realistic.”

“I can’t tell if you’re being amazingly mature about the topic of death or if I should be really concerned about you.”

Amazingly mature?”

They had reached the PRT building.  A trip that had taken them thirty minutes on the way out had taken them four on the way back, with the aid of Vista’s power.  Flechette held the bulletproof glass door open, raised a hand in greeting to the PRT uniform who stood alert on the other side.  “You know what I mean.”

Vista had to bite her tongue.  Pointing out that people were being condescending had a way of making her look petulant, which only compounded the problem.  Yes.  Because any maturity on my part is something special.  Doesn’t matter that I have nine months of seniority over Kid Win, being thirteen means everyone expects me to be squealing over Justin Beiber or the Maggie Holt books, or dressing in pink or-

Her train of thought stopped dead when her eye fell on the portraits on the wall above the front desk.

Three feet high and two feet wide, the two pictures were black and white, bordered by foot-wide black frames.  The pictures themselves were head-and-shoulders shots of Aegis and Gallant, both in costume, masks on.  She knew from her own experience that the pictures would have been taken in their first week on the team.  Gallant looked so young.  He had still been so young when the tidal wave had smashed into him and caved in his chest.  Only seventeen.

She looked at her own picture.  In contrast to the boys’, it was vibrant, filled with color.  Her eyes, costume and the frame of the picture were a high-saturation blue-green, the background of the image a sunset orange to highlight her blonde hair.  Vista was young in that picture too.  Her photo had a missing fang tooth on the bottom row, which created a small, dark gap in her awkward smile.  She’d been just a month shy of turning eleven, then.

She hated that picture.

She hated it all the more because she couldn’t help but wonder if the time would come when that picture would be hanging over the front desk in black and white, smiling that guileless goofy smile that was everything she didn’t want people to remember about her.

Hell, were they even doing Gallant justice?  The guy who’d set out to be the literal knight in shining armor, lived his life with more chivalry than any five people you plucked off the street?  All he got was a photo and a name on a memorial.

“You okay?” Flechette asked.

Vista tore her eyes from the portraits, “I’m fine.  Let’s go, Weld’s waiting.”

Without waiting for Flechette, she marched for the elevator.  Flechette fell in step behind her.

Everyone else was sitting in the meeting room, except for Director Piggot, who stood with her arms folded.

“Thank you for being prompt,” Piggot spoke, “Would you please have a seat?”

Vista obediently sat in the chair closest to her.  Flechette found a chair beside Weld.

“Kid Win?” Piggot prompted.

“Here’s the deal, guys.  I went out to talk to Chariot, and there’s a bit of a complication.”  He tapped the screen of his smartphone, and the computer screen at one end of the table changed to show text from a series of emails.  “Chariot hasn’t yet agreed to join the team, but there’s evidence that he fully intends to join as a mole for an unknown party.”

“This evidence was assumed using legal methods, of course,” Piggot spoke.

“Of course,” Kid Win grinned in a way that left no doubt for anyone present that he was lying through his teeth.  “We believe this unknown party is Coil.  There’s no other criminals in town that would really do this.  Fenrir’s Chosen aren’t that subtle, and they’re too racist to work with Chariot.  Purity’s group is, again, too racist.  The Undersiders aren’t well-funded enough.  It doesn’t fit the Travelers’ MO.”

“That,” Piggot spoke, “And there are prior cases of Coil using undercover operatives.”

“Prior cases?” Weld asked.

“This doesn’t leave this room,” Piggot spoke.  Vista nodded alongside everyone else.  “We know there are three agents employed in this very building who are working for Coil.”

“Seriously?” Clockblocker asked.  “As in, right now?”

“Yes,” Piggot nodded, “We might have gone entirely unaware, but Dragon found that one face on our security camera footage matched up with that of a known soldier of fortune.  On investigation, we found two more.  Capable gunmen, each with a wide array of skills ranging from facility with computers to multiple languages.  Very much the type Coil would employ.  We might have arrested them, but I spoke with people with higher credentials and clearance than myself, and we came to the unanimous agreement that it would be ideal to keep those mercenaries employed here.  It allows us to keep a close eye on them for knowledge we could use, and we occasionally feed them bad or misleading information, obviously with a great deal of consideration each time.

“Which brings me to the primary subject of this meeting,” Piggot informed them.  “I would like to do the very same thing here, with Chariot.  He would work alongside you, quite likely see you unmasked.  You would socialize with him, and you would pretend not to know that he is passing on information to his employer.  For that, for the risks you would be undertaking, I require your express permission.”

Kid Win whistled.

“Dealing with the relationships between team members is difficult enough to begin with,” Weld spoke, “And you want to add this into the mix?”

“I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t think you could handle it.”

“What if we say no?” Clockblocker asked.

“If only one or two of you disagreed, out of fear of your civilian identities being used against you, I would propose splitting up your team’s schedules so you did not share any shifts with Chariot.  Ideally this would coincide with each of you returning to school, so your busy schedules could serve as sufficient excuse for why you do not cross paths with the boy.  Given how complicated this becomes, I would much prefer that all of you were onboard.”

“I have no problem with it,” Weld spoke, “But I have no secret identity, no friends or family here to watch out for.  I totally, one hundred percent understand if anyone else has objections.”

“Not a local or a long term member of the team, here,” Flechette said, “My vote probably shouldn’t count, but I’m okay with it, if it’s what the PRT needs to do.”

“Good,” Piggot spoke, “And the rest of you?”

Shadow Stalker was next to agree, followed by Kid Win, Vista and then a reluctant Clockblocker.

Piggot offered them a rare smile, “Good.  For your information, the earpiece communication channel, the computers at this console, the spare laptops and the spare smartphones will all be continually monitored by a team upstairs.  Your own laptops and smartphones will be free of this prying.  This makes it doubly important that you do not lose these possessions or let him gain access to them.”

“He’s a tinker,” Kid Win pointed out, “He might be able to figure out he’s being watched.”

“Admittedly true, but I have assurances from Dragon that the programs and devices she has put together are sufficiently discreet.”  She clasped her hands together, “Thank you, Wards, for your cooperation.  Your service since the start of the Endbringer event has been exemplary.  Trust me when I say I will find some way to make it up to you.”

She moved to leave, stopped, “And Kid Win?  Good work.”

Kid Win smiled broadly.

The Wards watched in silence until the moment the elevator door closed.

“It’s really freaking creepy when Piggy acts human,” Clockblocker commented.  There were chuckles from the rest of the group.  Vista’s own titter was tinged with relief.  The crack was a sign that Dennis was putting out an effort, acting more like his old self.

“Alright guys,” Weld spoke, clapping his hands together once, generating a muted clink, “We needed to be ready with a response in case Chariot replied, I’m sorry about interrupting your nights.  Lily, could I have a word with you before you head out again?”

Flechette nodded and followed Weld to the far corner of the room.

Vista went to get a sports drink from the kitchen in one of the alcoves.  Kid Win was sketching in a notebook.  If he was feeling inspired, it would be best to leave him alone.

She stood behind him at enough of a distance to avoid distracting him, and watched the comedy on the TV, sipping her drink.  She felt a hand on her shoulder, turned to see Weld.

Weld spoke quietly, “You look like you could use a shower.  Go warm up, then get yourself dry and in comfortable clothes.  Clockblocker is replacing you on your patrol, you can come with me in a few hours.”

She nodded.

“Come see me when you’re done.  I want to have a chat.  Nothing bad.”

She nodded again.  So Flechette said something.

She headed into the bathrooms, detoured into the adjacent girl’s bathroom with accompanying showers.  She kicked off her boots, removed her body armor, and hung the armor on one of the drying dummies.  She removed the dress and peeled off the stockings, and hung the clothes on a second dummy, where they would be subjected to a steady, gentle flow of warm air.  Her boots were placed upside down on the heating vent below the dummies, propped up against the wall.  She removed her underwear last, putting it in a basket with the rabbit Parian had made, and grabbed a towel.

It felt strange, removing her costume.  It was like she wasn’t herself.  When had she started seeing herself more as Vista than as Missy Biron?  When her parents divorced, and she started taking extra shifts to get away from the oppressive atmosphere?  After one year on the team, two?

She hung the towel up and stood under the spray of hot water, rinsing off the dirt and the grime that had come with the damp, dirty water that was everywhere outside, now.  It didn’t take long to soap up and rinse off, but she spent a long few minutes leaning there with her hands against one wall of the stall, letting the water run over her, not thinking about anything in particular.

She cranked the water off and walked over to the sink to look at herself in the mirror, her towel around her shoulders.

The water had removed most of it, but there was a line of dried blood flecks on her throat from where the wire had pulled against it.  She had another, similar, mark on her left arm, by her elbow.  She picked the flecks away with one fingernail, then rinsed her finger clean with a spray of water from the faucet.  Only a pink line remained.  Neither serious enough to warrant worrying about.  There was bruising on one of her knees, the thigh and around the side of her pelvis where the bone was closest to the skin, from where rubble had fallen on her, green-yellow in color.

There were older injuries too.  Small scars on her hands, tiny cuts on her legs, the bump of a dime-sized keloid scar on the top of one foot.  The one that caught her eye was on the right side of her chest, an inch and a half down from her collarbone.  An inch wide, the scar puckered inward a bit.  It had been the result of an altercation with Hookwolf as the villain escaped the scene of a grisly attack on a grocer, a year ago.  A blade on the villain’s arm had punctured her armor as he’d knocked her aside.  She’d felt the pain of her skin being penetrated and she’d kept quiet about it out of a desperate need to shake the label of being the team baby.  She didn’t want to be seen as the one always in need of help and protection.  It would have been embarrassing to ask for medical attention, only for it to be a scratch.

It had only been later that she’d seen how serious it was, how much it had been bleeding into the fabric of her costume, underneath her breastplate. She’d stitched it up herself, here, in the showers.  She’d done as best as she was able, worked with a kind of grim determination.  Not the most competent job, in the end.

She kind of regretted that series of decisions, now.  She was a late bloomer, looked younger than she was, but when she did eventually have the sort of cleavage she could show off, the scar would be there, plain as day.  It might even be worse, when that time came, depending on how the scar stretched as her chest grew.

Vista might have tried asking Panacea to fix it, but hadn’t been able to summon up the courage.  Now, as she thought about it, she thought maybe she didn’t really want to get rid of it.  A part of her took a perverse kind of pride in the fact that she had a scar, as though it was some kind of proof to herself that she was a good soldier.  It was a sort of validation of the philosophy she’d been outlining to Flechette.  Why stress about a scar on her chest when some villain could kill her before it became an issue?

A toilet flushed in one of the bathroom stalls, and Vista hurried to pull her towel from around her shoulders and wrap it around herself, hiking it up to cover the scar on her chest.

Sophia strolled over to the sink next to Vista.  She gave the younger girl a cool look, “Don’t freak out, midget.  It’s not like you have anything worth hiding.”

Bristling at the midget comment and the crack about her chest, Vista just stared at herself in the mirror, ignoring the girl.

Sophia finished washing her hands, then got her toothbrush and brushed her teeth.  She took her time, while Vista stood there, clutching the towel around herself with both hands.

Finishing, Sophia put her toothbrush away, and, as she’d been doing recently, put a hand on Vista’s head as she passed by.  Only this time, she mussed up the younger girl’s hair, with more roughness than was necessary.  “Carry on, kid.”

Great, Vista thought.  Dennis might be acting more like his old self, but Sophia is too.

She combed out her hair, sorting out the tangles that Sophia’s attention had given her, dried off, and then went to her locker to get a change of clothes: A t-shirt, sweatshirt and flannel pyjama pants.  Comfortable clothes.  She pulled on slippers and went to find Weld.

Sophia was manning the console, browsing Facebook.  Kid Win was testing out the armor – four guns with the size and shape of large pears were floating around the shoulders in a loose formation.

Rather than distract Chris or have to deal with Sophia again, Vista left the headquarters and headed into the elevator.  Weld’s room was in the hallways one floor up, opposite Kid Win’s workshop.

The door was open, and he was there, reclining on the a heavy-duty chair of the same model as the one he had in the conference room.  He had headphones on, his feet on a granite counter where his computer sat.  She’d never been in his room.  Looking around, she saw rack upon rack of CDs, DVDs and vinyl records.  There was no bed, but he didn’t really need to sleep, so that made some sense.  It was easily possible that he slept in the chair.

His head was bobbing with the music until he spotted her.  He gave her a quick nod, pulled off his headphones and turned off the speaker system.

“You wanted to talk to me?” she asked.

“I sent Flechette on patrol with you because she’s got an objective perspective on the team, and I wanted to see if her thoughts on you echoed my own.  True enough, you were only out for a short while, and she’s already expressed concerns.”

“Okay.”

“Tell me straight up, are you doing okay?”

“People keep asking me that.  I’m fine.”

“Flechette said you were sounding pretty fatalistic when you were on patrol, a little while ago.  I know you were fond of Gallant, that you were pretty inconsolable when you were in the hospital, at his bedside.”

Vista looked away.

“And now you’re acting like nothing fazes you, even the idea of you maybe dying in the near future.  I have to know, Missy.  Do you have a death wish?  Are you going to be putting yourself in unnecessary danger?”

“No,” she said.  When his expression didn’t change, she repeated herself, louder, “No.  You saw me against the Travelers.  I don’t think I did anything stupid there.”

“You didn’t.”

“I just want to do a good job as a member of this team.  Carry on their memory.  Act like they would want me to act.  I can work twice as hard, be twice as tough, twice as strong, if it means making up for them being gone.”

“That’s a pretty crazy burden to be shouldering.”

“It’s fine.”

“And it could go somewhere problematic, if you get frustrated, let it consume you, alongside this blasé attitude towards death you seem to be adopting.”

“I can deal.”

Weld sighed.  “Maybe.  Maybe not.  You know what I think?”

Vista shrugged.

“I think you should let your teammates take some of the responsibility there.  Trust them to help carry on the legacy.”

She shook her head, “Nobody else seems to care as much-”

Weld raised a hand, “Stop.  Let me finish.  Remember that your teammates have their individual strengths to their personalities.  I don’t know enough about Aegis or Gallant to say for sure, but I think maybe Clockblocker is stepping up to become more of a leader, in Aegis’s absence.  It could be part of why there’s friction between him and me, even if he doesn’t fully realize it.”

“Gallant was sort of preparing to be the team leader, for when Aegis graduated,” Vista said, her voice quiet.

Weld nodded.  “The impression I’ve picked up, and forgive me if I’m off target, is that Aegis was the head of the team, the leader, strategist and manager.  Gallant, maybe, was the heart.  The guy who tied you all together, kept the interpersonal stuff running smoothly.  Would I be wrong in assuming he was the one who handled Sophia best?”

Vista shook her head.  A lump was growing in her throat.

“Okay.  With all this in mind, I have one suggestion and two orders.  My suggestion?  Stop trying to be everything they were.  Be what you’re good at, a caring, sweet young woman who everyone on the team likes.  My professional opinion is that you have it in you to fill some of that void Gallant left.  Use that empathic nature of yours to help others with their own struggles.  Be the team’s heart.”

Her eyes started watering.  She blinked the tears away.

“And my orders?”

“Order number one is that you go see the PRT’s therapist.  If I can clear it with Director Piggot, figure out a way to make the patrol schedules work, I’m going to try to get everyone to go.  I’m honestly kind of flabbergasted that nobody higher up than me has mandated it already.”

“Okay.”  In a way, she was relieved, at that instruction.

“Order number two is to let yourself cry, damn it.  Stop holding it back.”

Just the mention of crying made her eyes water again.  Vista wiped it away once more, “I’ve cried enough.”

“If your body wants to cry, then you should listen to it.  It doesn’t make you any weaker if you let it happen.  You think I’ve never cried?  Looking like I do, facing the disappointments and frustrations I have?  Maybe it’s self-serving to think so, but I think it takes a kind of strength to let yourself face your emotions like that.”

The tears were rolling down her cheeks, now.  She let her head hang, her damp hair a curtain between her and her team leader.  He stood, pulled her into a hug.  She pressed her face against his shirt.  It was soft, but the body beneath was hard, unyielding.  It was still very gentle.

When she pulled away, a few minutes later, his shirt was damp.  She sniffled, taking the offered tissue to wipe at her eyes and nose, Weld spoke, gently, “I’m always here to talk, and the therapist will be there too.”

Vista nodded.

“If you need a break from the team, just say the word.  I’ll talk to Piggot.”

She shook her head, “No.  I want to work.  I want to help.”

“Okay.  Then we’ve got patrol in… two hours and fifteen minutes.  Go relax, watch some TV, maybe take a nap.”

“Alright.  Don’t you dare let me sleep through patrol.”

“I wouldn’t.”

She made her way back to the elevator, noting the lights were on in Kid Win’s workshop.  Heading back down to the base, she walked toward her cubicle-room.

“Holy crap, you’ve been crying again?  I thought you were over that.”  Sophia commented from the console.  She was on her laptop, sitting just to the right of the main console.  Nobody else was present in the headquarters.  Again, the two of them were alone.  Was Sophia’s nice act only for when others were around?

Vista turned, irritated.  “I was venting a little with Weld, what’s your issue?”

“I just really hate crybabies,” Sophia turned back to the computer.

Crybaby.  Whatever else someone could say about Sophia, there was no denying that she was very, very good at finding someone’s weak points, be it during a brawl or in an argument.  Vista couldn’t think of an insult that would have needled her more.

“Bitch,” Vista muttered, moving toward her room.

She thought she spoke quietly enough that Sophia didn’t hear, but the girl did, because she had a response.  “You annoyed him, you know.”

Vista stopped in her tracks, stayed where she was, her back to Sophia.  She replied without turning around “Weld?  You don’t know-”

“Gallant.  Twelve year old following him around all the time, brimming with prepubescent lust and lovesick infatuation?  And he can feel all of her emotions?  You know how gross that would be?  How disturbing and awkward?”

Vista clenched her fists.

Sophia went on, “Think about it, every time you got just a little turned on while you looked at him?  Every time you crushed on him?  He felt it, forced himself to smile and play nice even as you totally repulsed him, because he was that kind of guy.  You know he was that kind of guy.”

“I loved him,” Vista spoke.  The first time she’d spoken the words aloud.  Why did it have to be to Sophia?  Why couldn’t she have said it to Gallant, before he passed?  “There’s nothing gross about love.”

“You don’t know what love is, little one,” Sophia’s condescending tone rang across the room, “It was a first crush, a little infatuation.  Real love is what he had with Glory Girl… that long-term bond that survived through a dozen really nasty fights, and brought them back together again and again.  A schoolgirl crush is easy.  Real love is hard, something tempered and enduring.”

Vista turned to look at the older girl.

Sophia was reclining in her chair.  She smiled a little, “I know it sucks to hear now, but it’s better to hear it straight than to look back and realize how horribly stupid you sounded, five or ten years down the road.”

“I am not going to feel stupid for how I feel now.”

Sophia shrugged, “Kids.”  She turned her attention to Facebook.

Vista unclenched her fist.  She could tip Sophia out of her chair, bend the computer screen, carry out any number of petty revenges.  But Weld’s advice stuck in her head.

“What happened to you, Sophia?”

Sophia looked over her shoulder.  “You’re still here?”

“What kind of situation led to you becoming like this?  So casually cruel, so lacking in basic human decency?”

“My advice is for your own benefit, little tyke.  I’m not the bad guy.”

“You’re the only one who doesn’t have any friends on the team, you keep yourself at a distance, you talk only with your friend or friends from your civilian life.  Even there, you’re always in trouble.  Getting suspended, picking fights.  It’s like you want to break your probation and go to some juvenile detention facility for the next few years.”

“Not your business.”

“Out in costume, you’re scary.  You hurt people like you’re hungry for it.  I just want to know why.  Where did you come from?  What situation led to you being like this?”

“Drop the fucking subject.  You’re irritating me.”

Vista sighed.  Feeling the traces of anger and the hurt from Sophia’s words, she still tried to soften her parting words as she turned to go back to her room, “If you ever do want to talk about it, I’m willing to listen.”

“I’m not about to talk about it with you.  Fix your own shit before you start worrying about me, crybaby.”

Frustrated, disappointed in herself for failing in her first genuine effort at taking Weld’s advice, trying to reach out to a team member that needed it, Vista shook her head, muttered, “I pity you.”

The sound of a laptop crashing to the ground made Vista turn.  She saw Sophia in her shadow state, wispy, her skeleton visible beneath her skin, warped.  The girl’s eyes were too reflective, her entire body seemed to bend and distort, not completely solid as she leaped towards Vista.

Sophia dropped out of her shadow state in time to push Vista flat onto her back, hard, one fist gripping the collar of the younger girl’s t-shirt.  She shook her.  “Pity?”

Feeling strangely calm despite the pain that radiated through the back of her head, where it had struck the ground, Vista spoke, “Weld said it takes a kind of strength to face your emotions.  Are you really that scared, Sophia, that you’d attack me instead of talk to me?”

Sophia raised a clenched fist.  Vista screwed one eye shut, anticipating the hit.  It would almost be worth it if she hit me and violate the conditions of her membership on the team, to have her gone.  But we need all the help we can get, right now.  “The security cameras are watching us right now.”

Sophia dropped her hand, stood, and stalked over to the far side of the room.  She gathered her costume in her arms.  “I’m going on patrol.”

“It’s not your shift,” Vista spoke, sitting up.

“Don’t fucking care.  If Weld asks, I’m doing a double shift.”

And then Sophia was gone, having used her shadow state to disappear through the elevator door.

“Okay,” Vista spoke, pulling herself to her feet. “Guess I’m manning the console.”

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